'Elective Affinities: A Library' May Be This Year's Most Literary Art Show

Photo of Elective Affinities by Jocelyn Spaar
Photo of Elective Affinities by Jocelyn Spaar
Photo of Michael Barron
Books And Digest Editor17 March 2017

We spoke with one of the curators for Hunter College Art Galleries about literary communities and assembling a library as exhibition.

Like a visual art show, a library, especially a private one, curates a number of written works to be shown together to create a sense of vision and aesthetic. Under the theme of family and community, the NYC-based Hunter College Art Galleries at 205 Hudson has opened Elective Affinities: A Library which gathers books, pamphlets, text-based artists objects, and video art into a reading room environment. Many of the “artists” here are publishing houses; contributions from bigger institutions such as Melville House, Ugly Duckling Presse, Verso, Archipelago, and New Directions share space with smaller presses such as Purgatory Pie Press, The Song Cave, and many others. The connections and crossovers here are subtle but multitudinous—Primary Information, for instance, has co-published books with Ugly Duckling and shares an author with New Directions who in turns shares authors with Archipelago and both have authors included in the literary journal Stonecutter that also has work in the show, including sketchbook drawings from one of its editors.

At the entrance of the gallery is a large quote by the writer Doris Lessing: “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one—but no one at all—can tell you what to read and when and how.” Many of the works here are meant to be interacted with; people are encouraged to pick up and read anything they like. What isn’t meant to be touched is protected: along with the books—all cover-faced out—lining the walls, there are featured clusters of printed matter curated within vitrines, from rare books and first editions by New Directions, Primary Information, and Top Stories, to a series of postcards of work by women artists edited by Corina Reynolds of Small Editions along with artist Cara Benedetto and curator and Blonde Art Books publisher, Sonel Breslav, and a number of artists’ books and collaborative works printed by Purgatory Pie Press.

The video artists featured bring a thoughtful touch to the theme of family, including Barbara Hammer’s film about her queer activist family, and Bryan Zanisnik, who as a thirteen-year-old filmed and later edited footage of his grandmother dressed in various costumes and confessing to assassinating JFK, saying, “I’m glad to finally get it off my chest.” Like the literary works, these videos convey stories intended to be shared with others, reinforcing the show’s sense of community. Not surprisingly, the show will include a number of readings and events that will play into this theme as well, given both the read and spoken egalitarian weight.

We spoke with Hunter College Art Galleries curator Jocelyn Spaar, who co-organized the show with the institution’s director of exhibitions Sarah Watson, about what inspired the exhibition, the content gathered, and the idea of family and community that it explores.

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© Bill Orcutt

How did the idea for Elective Affinities come about? How did you know you wanted to showcase a library and reading room?
Given the current political climate, it seemed more urgent than ever to transform the gallery space—where one traditionally “reads” visual pieces—into an inclusive, living library in the fullest sense of the word. There are two effects of this, at least. One is to remind visitors that libraries are themselves “galleries”—a library is curated space that is both a repository (museum) and a shared source, an inclusive, a permeable “free zone.” Another is to invite visitors to re-think what a gallery itself is, or can be—not a site of privilege or “the one-way gaze,” but a safe, generative place, a reading room, a gathering space, a site of visual beauty that depends on interaction in order for full meaning to emerge.

The source of the exhibition title is Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), or Kindred by Choice, which is in itself sort of meta. We hope that this exhibition might encourage the growth of ties between these already existing communities by offering a discursive way of reading, watching, and thinking about the families we belong to, whether bound by chance or by choice, as we continue to question the importance of the materiality of print and of the gallery space itself.

Amidst the dense, seemingly inescapable scroll of social media, of the often thoughtless “likes” and “shares” via screens, we hope that this physical space, filled with books, pamphlets, printed-matter, photographs, time-based films and video &c., might become a catalyst for collective action—a space to foster nuanced dialogues among these already intricately linked networks of artists, writers, small presses, etc., and to open the conversation up to a wider audience.

Working alongside Sarah Watson, the Director of Exhibitions at the Hunter College Art Galleries, we co-curated this space to welcome a multiplicity of voices, or as she says, “the theme of family, in the most inclusive sense possible, is something that resonates for everyone in one way or another. Creating the library and reading room was core to the project, in part because our 205 Hudson MFA campus does not have a library. We asked all of the presses and organizations invited to collaborate to donate their selections of books when possible so that we could start a library at this campus. Because of the generosity of everyone involved we have the beginning of an incredible reading room.”

The presses, libraries, and individuals already have countless rich and varied dialogues that exist between them, be that collaborating on artists books together, publishing the same authors and artists, seeing each other at all the art book fairs, &c. There have been so many inspirations for this exhibition, such as show participants Wendy’s Subway’s BAM Next Wave Art Reading Room or Sonel Breslav’s “She Was A Film Star Before She Was My Mother.” To be quite honest, I think this show truly began to take form over several Lupe’s Oaxaca margaritas, when Sarah and I met with artist Emmy Catedral, the brilliant human encyclopedia of book art, whose beautiful, thoughtful curation appears in the show as the Explorers Club of Enrique de Malacca.

© Jocelyn Spaar

Along with literature and publication, the aesthetic theme of the show is family or community. You’re hosting a few live events for this show, and it brings about the idea that readings are very communal vs reading which is very individual. Can talk about that relationship between family and individual as it pertains to the show.
Reading, especially reading books is often a private, interior act. Our physical bodies (blood pressure, breathing rate) change as we transform printed text into imaginative alchemizations. But there is something about reading in a public space that changes the experience, so that even an isolato can feel part of the polis, and vice versa. This experience—of feeling alone in a group—is not unlike being in a family. Often we can’t choose or elect the families we are born into, but art allows us to find another kind of family, to “elect” our “affinities.” Adding public readings into the mix is another way to foreground that printed text, while often encoded in the privacy of the page, between covers, is perhaps most fully embodied when it is voiced in a responsive environment—books exist spatially, but reading and reading aloud are temporal acts. Bringing those states of being—space and time—into concert is another way of defining what constitutes a family.

There will be readings, screenings, conversations, and workshops throughout the rest of the exhibition. For instance, Constance DeJong (whose Modern Love, first published in 1977 by Standard Editions, now being published by Ugly Duckling Presses and Primary Information) will read with Erica Baum (whose book and photographs Dog Ear, published by UDP, are in the show) and others still to be confirmed. Esther K. Smith of Purgatory Pie Press will lead a book-making workshop and we plan on hosting a Visual Resistance meeting, among many other events.

© Bill Orcutt

How did you come to choose which publishers to include and in what ways to include them? How do fit into the show’s motif? What were some of the more difficult pieces to get and why?
This constellation was formed from an intuitive process of thinking about what intrepid book publishers, small presses, libraries, bibliophiles, and often avant-garde or experimental makers of books might respond well to the themes of the exhibition. Everyone I asked to participate responded with such enthusiasm and creativity with their selections of works.

Certain organizations included statements about their selections of works, for instance, Wendy’s Subway, a non-profit library and writing space in Bushwick, writes “for Elective Affinities, we drew from our non-circulating collection of over 3,000 titles to highlight a small selection of exhibition catalogues, fiction, poetry, and essays on care, black intimacy, encounters and relationships, dwellings, homelands, and citizenship.” Others defined their mission as an organization, for example, Ugly Duckling Presse; a nonprofit publisher for poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, performance texts, and books by artists, writes that “in all of its activities, UDP endeavors to create an experience of art free of expectation, coercion, and utility.” Some publishers even offered a quote to help frame the selection, as with Melville House’s using Hans Fallada’s dictum: “The main thing is, you fight back.” Denise Schatz of Miniature Garden writes that her “selection of books centers on the objects we are surrounded by and the power we imbue them with—household artifacts, the secret lives of indoor plants, an index of interiors, the poetry of phones, the migration of textiles, the relics of a coven.” Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria writes of their completely volunteer-run endeavor going on six years in Washington Heights that they “have built a family from our daily work of caring for the shop and its people. The books we have selected for inclusion in this exhibition feature some of the voices of our neighborhood. Home at Word Up: The Story of a Bookshop in Washington Heights is a bilingual children’s book that the volunteer collective created together after our crowd-funding campaign that allowed us to move into our current, more permanent space.”

This was a great chance to bring into one space such an aesthetically diverse range of books and printed matter and even sound pieces to listen to, including Miniature Garden’s issue of a rare cassette and booklet of Xiu Xiu’s House Plant Music and the DISBAND CD from Primary Information, featuring Ilona Granet, Donna Henes, Barbara Kruger, Ingrid Sischy, Diane Torr, and Martha Wilson.

While some rare artist books, first editions and ephemera &c. are living in the vitrines, most of the books in the show are meant to be handled, opened, experienced, read. All the participating presses and publishers who were able have donated their selections to help begin building what is already an impressive library for Hunter MFA and MA students at 205 Hudson Street.

© Bill Orcutt

There are a few non-literary work that take the form of films that resemble home movies. Can you tell us about the vitality these films bring to the show? How do they complement the literature?
Choosing to show video and film work came from a fruitful collaboration with my co-curator, Sarah Watson (who also curated the amazing show The Experimental Television Center: A History, Etc…at 205 Hudson Gallery in 2015). We were able to feed off of each other’s ideas for which presses and film and video artists to include—what might resonate well together in this exciting nest of a library we were building.

The show includes film and video works by six artists: Joey Carducci, Kevin Everson, Barbara Hammer, Shigeko Kubota, Sondra Perry, and Bryan Zanisnik. Sarah notes that “these works span from the early 1970s to present and each speaks to family and community in different ways: some include the artist’s biological family as collaborators, while others offer a view of chosen family and/or expressions of community. These works offer another vision of what a library can be and are important to the overall theme of the show. Including these works in the exhibition was equally as important as the selection and inclusion of presses and library collectives. The time-based work and books demand that the viewer slow down and take time to understand the work—hopefully encouraging people to linger in the space.”

I think there is a particular nostalgic meshing of space, place, and time that film allows. Certainly not antithetical to the literature, “reading” a film or video might serve as both a private and a communal act (watching a movie in the dark space of the gallery—there is a certain subversion of expectations when the form of the home (or family, domestic) movie is granted gallery stature; viewers watch as if in their living rooms, but with a sense that those around them have elected to be there—they aren’t forced around the 8 mm. screen at Thanksgiving dinner or perhaps even the homepage/desktop screen, as in the case of Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One. ; as Kevin Everson writes of his work, his “films suggest the relentlessness of everyday life—along with its beauty—but also present oblique metaphors for art-making.” Whether it’s Everson’s silent film of his community celebrating Juneteenth, or Shigeko Kubota filming her dying father watching television, the inclusion of these artists further interrogates the significance of family and community in the artistic process.

© Jocelyn Spaar

What are some of the reactions by either the participants or by the public about the show that you’ve noted or noticed?
It has been exciting to watch a number of people wandering by the gallery be drawn in by the bright line of books at the entrance of the gallery. Many visitors and participants have remarked on how welcoming the space feels and a few have mentioned being moved by the Doris Lessing quote in the introduction text. Framing the exhibition in such a way has garnered a lot of positive feedback from not only Hunter College students and faculty, but from neighborhood passersby, design firms, librarians, activists, and the casually curious.

Elective Affinities runs through April 9. For more information on its upcoming public programming including readings, screenings, workshops, please go here.

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