Dexter Sinister & Eric Fredericksen
Re: The Serving Library
Eric Fredericksen: During a recent session of classic American cocktails, German beer and sausages, pretzels, and pear schnapps, you told me about a new long-term project, The Serving Library. Consulting my foggy memory, I recall that you plan to create a licensed library in Los Angeles, offering both books and booze to visitors. The Serving Library would also embrace a larger set of activities and archives, both physically sited and online, to include a private-label whisky made at Christoph Keller’s Stählemühle, an online PDF archive, and—was it a residency program in Detroit?
Dexter Sinister: Your memory serves you pretty well, considering. Most of the things you mention are correct in the sense that we did probably utter them that night, but it’s worth backtracking a bit and saying from the outset here—in sober ink on paper—that they’re more accurately placeholders of ideas-in-progress than fixed propositions.
The term “The Serving Library” came out of a conversation with Nick Relph in Los Angeles. I was talking about my interest in establishing something along the lines of what I suppose I think of as the classically English, typically Soho-based, explicitly elitist and implicitly chauvinistic men’s club. I’m interested less in the chauvinism and elitism, obviously, and more in the idea of a cellar-like hangout, open during the daytime in order to escape the sun and traffic; equal parts intellectual and social—or literate and drunk. I’m also attracted to the perversity of the idea of such an institution being situated in Los Angeles, which would seem to be about as antithetical a location as possible for such an establishment. Nick was talking about a short film he was in the early stages of making with Oliver Payne, the only idea for which at that point was that it would be set in a disused library they’d found somewhere off the Hollywood section of Sunset Boulevard. The books had recently moved into a new building round the corner, but all the original shelves and desks were left intact. Then, we both simultaneously remembered a bit in the recent ghost-written Mark E. Smith autobiography, Renegade, in which he recounts moving to Leith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh in Scotland, for a couple of years in the late 1980s:
I had an advance from Polygram, the record label. I wasn’t living it up or anything. I spent a lot of time in these small specialized science and law libraries. They were the perfect places to go and kill a few hours before you had a drink. I’d peruse all these great psychiatric reports and law files. I spent a lot of time in there, just reading bits and pieces from these strange papers. It was like a second education in a way. I’d never read anything quite like that before. And more importantly, it was all free. Anybody was allowed in there. It’s not closed off like it is here, where only a doctor knows what a doctor does. You could have a cig in some of them as well. Some fellows used to bring hip flasks in: you’d see them nipping away while reading about nineteenth-century law. It was very civilized. That’s how it should be in England. Go into a library round here and you’ve got a load of repressed stormtroopers gawking at you. It’s no wonder kids don’t read as much as they used to.
By the end of the conversation with Nick these ideas had congealed into the idea of a reference library with a limited bar, a library that serves drinks during the day— a “serving library.” Nick and Oliver then went on to make their short film based on this idea, which is a kind of crude, 3D architect’s impression—i.e., with footage of the abandoned library interior filled with Google Sketchup books and bottles. It looks oddly sinister, most probably because there are more bottles than people in there.
All this coincided with a few other recent productions we’ve been involved in that are directly or indirectly concerned with libraries. For example, a series of pamphlet-like printed signatures for a conference of art librarians at MoMA last fall, which were to be bound by each of the librarians back at their own libraries using their regular binderies, extra copies of which we’ve distributed in various contexts, sometimes loose, sometimes bound. Libraries, then, feature in a lot of these texts— a close reading by Rob Giampietro of the 100th chapter of Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, for example, which is a conversation with a librarian; or Seth Price’s self-fulfilling prophecy Dispersion; or a piece by David Senior, the librarian at MoMA who commissioned the pamphlets in the first place, about the philosophy of library classification systems called “∞ Hospitality.” And, in fact, the underlying conceit of the whole project was that these were all texts that had originally been dispersed via the library page of our own Web site. They were being turned into hard, analog print AFTER being distributed as soft digital PDF, which seemed kind of appositely backward in terms of our wider interests in the mechanics of contemporary publishing. We’re about to compound this by publishing the whole thing with a so-called real publisher, Sternberg Press, and call the book Portable Document Format.
I realize this is a roundabout way of answering the question, but the whole idea of The Serving Library is a bit of a roundabout. Since the conversation with Nick, then, what’s happened is that the few vague projects we’ve had in mind for the longer term all seem to fit easily under this umbrella The Serving Library, plus they all seem to merge into one overarching idea rather than remaining distinct. So, to itemize: the intention to make a twelve-year Black Whisky with Christoph Keller in Germany; a proposal to remodel the basic Bauhaus foundation course and make it specific to the twenty-first century so far rather than the 1920s; some kind of residency space, at least spiritually situated in Detroit because of the $100 real estate; a permanent home for a collection of artifacts we’ve been exhibiting at various provincial locations whose only objective connection is that they’ve appeared at some point as illustrations in Dot Dot Dot, our house journal; and an online library, which would take the basic format we’ve set up with our library page on the Dexter Sinister Web site and push it to allow for a certain amount of cybernetic adaptability as a live archive. Ultimately, it seems inevitable that Dot Dot Dot and Dexter Sinister will dissolve into this constellation, too, which seems to make sense as all the ideas are increasingly less location-specific and necessarily involve a wider group of people.
These ideas start to merge into one larger plan if you imagine, say, a specific location that contains a collection of books, perhaps for a start a single copy of everything we’ve ever sold from the bookstore at Dexter Sinister, all library-bound for longevity, and a bar that serves alcohol from Christoph’s distillery in advance of the whisky, which, amid the general reading and drinking, might serve as the venue for a residency program and/or attempt to consolidate a new foundation course, with the Dot Dot Dot artifacts permanently installed on the walls and all this mirrored in an online counterpart.
Of course, all this will necessarily change, and various aspects will be revised or altered or removed or added or become impractical or impossible … but this is the mental hologram at the moment. It’s also worth saying that it all coincides with our applying for non-profit status in the US. We’ve resisted this until now as the scale of what’s involved—the number of people, the legal commitments, the necessary collateral—has always seemed to overshadow the size of any ambitions we’ve had, but now there’s a better fit. All the ideas obviously require more funding and a bigger circle of people. Physically speaking, the plan isn’t necessarily any bigger than Dexter Sinister (which physically occupies a tiny basement), and perhaps even smaller, but the overall reach is definitely broader. Hopefully, these details give an outline of the background and fill in some of the gaps from that night.
Fredericksen: What is the relationship of this project to Dexter Sinister, which is both a personal identity for collaborations in art and design between Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt and a basement bookshop, office, and event space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan? Does The Serving Library incarnate a broader set of practices and collaborations, and is that reflected in part by the move from a pseudonym (incidentally, Dexter Sinister is alphabetized under “S,” right before Reena Spaulings) to an institutional name?
Dexter Sinister: The Serving Library is more or less an extension of Dexter Sinister, but with a name change to mark it off from what Dexter Sinister has become, largely for the sake of securing non-profit status, to keep things clean. Without our really intending it, Dexter Sinister has evolved into a triangle of activities: a) a kind of studio involving writing, editing, designing, and hosting; b) a kind of shop and distributor; and c) a kind of exhibiting artist collective or group—though always under very particular circumstances. And, despite all this, we’re still a little dogged by our original intention to operate as a “just-in-time workshop,” which a lot of people interpret as our printing small-run fanzines and so on from our basement. We don’t, and never pursued the “just-in-time” aspect in any practical sense. It was really more of a frame through which to think through certain aspects of contemporary publishing. All we were really interested in was to consider anew the demands of each given job outside the expectations fostered by the habitual trajectory of art publishing over the previous couple of decades. Any switch from Dexter Sinister to The Serving Library will be slow and messy, and while it’s not untrue to say that our perception of The Serving Library is as more of an institution than Dexter Sinister, that implies we actually HAD a perception of Dexter Sinister beforehand. The exhibitionist-pseudonym aspect surprised us as much as anyone else; the name was only ever intended as a publishing imprint but was progressively changed by each new circumstance—as will doubtless happen with The Serving Library, too.
To summarize, I guess you could say we’re trying to profit from the non-profit by using the various requirements—a clear mission statement, an itemized budget, a circle of people—to force us into some clear-sighted thinking for a change. Up until now everything we’ve done has been backwards and stated indirectly or obscurely; it seems like time to turn around and be more direct and decisive.
Fredericksen: The Serving Library, as a name, suggests a move from workshop to archive, from commercial to philanthropic, from personal to institutional, and, perhaps, from sober to tipsy. Maybe the branding aspect shouldn’t be belaboured, as your history suggests an orientation toward definition through practice rather than concept—or a resistance to fixed definition at all—but I’m curious how those semantic shifts track changes in your interests and projects and how they might spur changes in your work.
Dexter Sinister: I think I’d agree with all your suggested shifts, other than the last, which might be paradoxically the other way round: it’s a sober bar, though not a dry one. I’d also agree with what you say about the apparent branding, though again, I’d emphasize that the apparent fixity of The Serving Library is mainly for the sake of appearing robust and far-sighted enough to qualify for non-profit status.
However, there IS something about wanting to play the non-profit line totally straight, to force ourselves into defining what we’re about to do primarily because it seems so uncomfortable to have to do it—and that discomfort is doubtless productive. What I mean is, I suspect we’ve become a little too comfortable with what we’ve come to regularly talk about as our haphazard backwards non-planning. It’s the same as saying anything over and over again—you become distracted, distanced from its original meaning, and begin to doubt whether you still mean what you vaguely remember you meant in the first place. So the idea of writing a mission statement, for example, as out-of-character as it seems on the one hand, feels a bit like going back to night school or something: adult education. We’re in the same state with Dot Dot Dot in that we’ve become more or less comfortable at—editorially at least—erring on the side of obscurity rather than clarity. Nothing is elaborated, connections are set up but not indicated, and it burns slowly—at least if you engage with it in the first place. But that’s become too easy, too expected (of ourselves). It feels right to try and break the situation, and the most extreme way to do that would appear to be to attempt the opposite: to be clear and direct, to state what it is exactly we stand for, what we want, and what we’re going to do with it.
Strange that you refer to “branding.” “Brand” means “fire” in German, the etymological root of the verb “Brennen,” which means “to distill”—obviously because burning is an integral part of the process. This, perhaps, too cleanly leads to the assertion that The Serving Library is “branding,” then, in the German sense—i.e. we’re distilling a bunch of raw ideas to make one high-end one, the sum being greater than its parts. The vocabulary of alcohol production is generally rich in useful metaphors for our purposes—proof, spirit, etc.
Fredericksen: Tell me more about the whisky project with Christoph Keller. As I’m writing these questions and emailing them to you, they start to feel less like an interview, with its imperative to mimic a conversation, and more like essay questions from a take-home exam. So I’d like your answer to do three things: 1) Describe in detail the conception, distillation, and aging of the whisky, with an emphasis on the significance of the choices made; 2) discuss the commitment to duration implied by making a twelve-year-old whisky, perhaps with reference to the orientation toward novelty and forgetfulness of the contemporary art world; 3) explain the distinction between whisky and whiskey.
Dexter Sinister: I’ll take the last question first, following the form. The distinction between “whisky” and “whiskey” is at once a result of legislation and of branding. According to Charlie MacLean, the author of eighteen books on the subject and recent guest of a dinner party that we organized in Edinburgh, “whisky” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic term uisge beatha, or water of life. (The Latin for the same is aqua vitae.) Once co-opted into English, the word became usquebaugh and eventually aged into “whisky.” But then “whisky” is used for Scottish-produced spirit, whereas “whiskey” is used for the same spirit produced in Ireland and elsewhere. In America, we usually call it “whiskey,” whereas, in Vancouver and elsewhere up there, it would be “whisky.” Of course, in the US it typically refers to corn-mash (bourbon) whiskey, whereas in Canada it is typically a rye-based or blended whisky. To further draw it out, in Japan plenty of “whisky” is made and plenty more consumed. In Germany, not much “whisky” or “whiskey” or even “whessky” (a German-specific variant) is produced, but can be named reasonably either way. In Scotland, however, it is a matter of law—Scotch Whisky follows an arcane code of standards that qualify its production. This, even the naming, has everything to do with producing a commodity, easily taxable, exportable, and consistent. The nicest part of the distinctions between the “e” or no “e” is that although there are consistent attempts at consistency, it remains easy enough to characterize in the abstract and just varied enough in application to make it impossible to completely account for.
The idea of distilling and producing a whisky began with a trip to Christoph Keller’s Stählemühle farm near Lake Constance in southern Germany a little over three years ago. I know the timing exactly, as my daughter Eden was three months old at the time I travelled to Christoph’s, and now she is three years old. When the idea comes to form and the whisky is ready, Eden will be sixteen and ready to sample the results.
As you know, Christoph had founded Revolver, an art publishing house in 1999, which had grown into such a substantial operation that the logistical and business concerns had overtaken the impulse to start publishing in the first place. As Christoph describes in an interview with Stuart that we published in Dot Dot Dot 14 and are including on The Serving Library Web site, he was thinking about changing his situation:
Then we found this farm in a newspaper ad, which, among the usual details, contained this phrase “Right to burn.” We had no idea what that meant—it might as easily have meant the house was only good for firewood! Then we discovered it referred to the distilling rights which came along with the property. Based on this more or less coincidental opportunity to make alcohol, Christoph threw himself into the process. Typically in that region, wheat-based spirits are produced through distillation plus the addition of various fruits. The resulting schnapps then should, according to Christoph, retain all aspects of the process in the taste of the spirit. So that in drinking a Williams Pear schnapps that Christoph has produced under his Stählemühle label, you should be able to taste the fruit’s journey from the tree to the ground to the still to pure spirit. Along this production line, nothing is lost. Rather, one thing is translated to another (fruit sugars to alcohol, for example.)
At Christoph’s farm in 2006, he had already worked out his distillation to a pretty fine degree, and we sampled many of the schnapps he had produced. Subsequently, Christoph produced with us coordinated schnapps tastings and slide lectures in New York at the Dexter Sinister basement as well as in the Munich Kunstverein, and then Christoph floated the idea of producing an alcohol together with us. I’ll say of course because of course we said yes. In the three years of thinking this through, the schnapps gradually became a whisky, and its colour became black. It became a whisky mostly due to a residency at Randolph Cliff in Edinburgh, and the proximity to lots of people who know lots of things about Scotch whisky. It became black much earlier on, though the reason is harder to place—probably something as facile as its sounding aesthetically sinister or glamourous.
The idea of an actual black whisky—at least in terms of its colour—disappeared not long after arriving in Scotland, mostly due to the circumstance that producing such a spirit required external doctoring (molasses, caramel, other fillers of dubious origin). This seemed counter to the spirit of the project, which requires producing a whisky that is simply a good whisky as well as having some other aspect that perhaps models a point of view. We still call it a black whisky, but I’d just as soon leave other reasons behind that description for later. In the meantime, in Scotland we learned that twelve years was going to be the minimum amount of time to produce a whisky worthy of the effort.
Twelve years seems an attractively awkward period. Not forever, but long enough to flush from your temporary memory. Imagine how many things will be inconceivably different in twelve years. A good test of its efficacy is to watch how people baulk when we first mention the duration of the project—and invite them to invest. As designers, we’ve always been aware of trying to engage public commitment—and that’s part of the attraction of the slowness here. It demands a long-term investment of interest. The common denominator to all we do, regardless of the media it’s channeled through or the field it’s played out in, is a concerted attempt to engage an audience, a reader, and a big part of that engagement involves seducing them by whatever means into reaching out and making the effort of connection, in which case we’re then responsible for the payoff being worth that effort.
I think that the emphasis on the “institutionality” of The Serving Library may be misplaced, or at least overemphasized. Setting up The Serving Library as a larger organization with more people involved, with an explicit mission statement, a board of directors, yearly tax audits, and all the rest of the accompanying furniture adds up to something that is an institution, not a critique of institutions, nor a model of an alternative institution. Whereas perhaps with Dexter Sinister we were attempting to model an approach, I think that here we’re trying to make it concrete. Our model has been taught us, now it is time to build the real thing. This comes back to something I know that we’ve talked about before, in particular relation to the show that you’re curating at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver at the beginning of next year, called “An Invitation to an Infiltration.”
It seems that there’s a lazy tendency to file many of our projects under Institutional Critique. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong in terms of intentions and results, but most importantly in terms of spirit. In fact, Institutional Affirmation would be much more accurate. For example, projects like the True Mirror project at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Dot Dot Dot 15 produced on location at the Contemporary Art Centre in Geneva, or True Mirror Microfiche at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] in London would be impossible without close coordination, consent, and trust on behalf of the commissioning institutions. Building this trust involves working with them over time and addressing concretely all practical consequences of the proposed projects. As Michelangelo Pistoletto says in a conversation in the upcoming Dot Dot Dot: “I don’t complain about institutions and I complain about institutions that I don’t like!”
So there’s plenty to be said for institutions. They persist longer than individuals, they embody information and relationships in a durable structure, they reach farther than the sum of their parts, they may be pointed towards altruistic ends that are impossible to realize in an individual arrangement and not sustainable in a commercial context. To incorporate a 501c3 non-profit company literally means to give it a body. And under the law, this new entity has all of the rights, responsibilities, and agency of a citizen.
Fredericksen: You have frequently engaged the subject of education. Many examples spring to mind: your project for the cancelled Manifesta 6 of Cyprus, 2006 (whose organizers proposed to create a school instead of an exhibition), your repurposing of that project for the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva; Stuart’s contribution to Frances Stark’s USC [University of Southern California] symposium “On the Future of Art School” in January 2007, and the exhibition of the same title at Store Gallery, London, in March of that year. A library is different from a school, of course, but you’re also working on an explicit course under The Serving Library rubric, the foundations course modelled on Photoshop tools. As a quasi-institution, The Serving Library can negotiate direct connections with existing academies or operate completely outside of their structures. It could be posed as an adjunct to the academy, a critique, an instrument of reform, or an alternative institution. Or possibly some combination of those positions. How do you see the project in relation to existing educational institutions and educational practices?
Dexter Sinister: Again, it’s foremost a speculation (a hunch or a gamble). Alongside both regular and irregular teaching, we’ve also been involved in various satellite projects set up to reconsider and update curricula—theory rather than practice. This might seem to be something schools would constantly be doing as a matter of course, but in our experience there’s less and less time, resources, or energy available to maintain it. Personally, I’d largely stopped teaching after being so confused by what I was doing and why, and resolved to be able to answer those questions before I started again. The Serving Library toolbox plan is a first tentative toe back in the pool.
Actually, this is a little exaggerated, in that we have both been involved with quite a large number of art and design schools over the past few years, but never really with any degree of longevity, almost always on a temporary, itinerant basis. Of course, this is precisely one of the trends that seems counterproductive in the long run. To try to cut what could amount to a long digression short, it feels like any real change of the sort we’d be interested in implementing in an art/design school would involve working in spite of the existing setup rather than with it, i.e., superficially rather than integrally modifying the situation. Contemporary schools—at least the ones I know in the US—would be the kind Pistoletto would complain about, for more or less obvious reasons related to, for example, tenure, fundraising, and all the other hydra-headed forms of bureaucracy we’re all familiar with.
At the moment, the overriding situation seems to be that as one of this tribe of temporary, itinerant teachers, you’re often absolutely left alone to teach more or less what or how you want—and this might seem like a good thing until you realize there’s no shared departmental goal, no explicit set of aims or intentions about what a course amounts to: who you’re teaching what to do, how and why you’re doing it. The bottom has fallen out, as they say.
The Photoshop toolbox idea is, as usual, semi-serious, semi-ridiculous, and the ridiculousness is part of the engagement we mentioned earlier. It derives from something my better half, Frances, said a while back. She’s in what might be a typically incongruous situation of a tenure-track art professor primarily employed to teach graduate art students, but one of the conditions of her position, it turned out, was to teach an undergraduate design class. So you have someone who’s never actually taken a design class herself in the position of organizing one—within a month or so—at a major US university. The only “guidance” she had was being handed the previous year’s list of topics covered, which might well have been written at any point over the last eighty years, which is to say it was all colour wheels and primary forms and “contrast.” Trying to panic-grapple with updating this list to something that might be useful in the early twenty-first century, she came to the conclusion that running through the tools in a Adobe Photoshop toolbox might be a good start.
So we’re thinking of taking this literally. The foundation of the idea is: why is the model of the art/design school still apparently based on the Bauhaus foundation course, which was explicitly set up in response to the specific social and industrial conditions of the early twentieth century? If we were to start from zero—i.e., in the way no established schools are set up to do—and tailor such a foundation to the early twenty-first century, what would it be? What seems useful about thinking through the implications of the Photoshop toolbox (which is really just a cipher for at least all the various Adobe software toolboxes, and at most all equivalent commercial, digital variations of such) is that this has presumably developed during the current digital/information paradigm based entirely on market forces—with features an audience and, in turn, a software operator, demand. The manual skills taught at the Bauhaus, on the other hand, were rooted in the base function of the objects produced, rather than second-guessing the expectations of their eventual consumers. So, there has been a shift from a one-way production from Producer → User towards, if not exactly a reversal of this arrow, then at least a complex feedback loop between the two.
All of which is just to set up the idea that a useful approach would seem to be to take the Photoshop toolbox as a given set of commercial demands and use it as a kind of thesis: to dismantle and question each aspect of it in a constructive way. Our suspicion is that a zero-degree 2009 foundation course would be better weighted towards sociology or cultural studies, teaching an awareness and understanding of the cultural environment, how to talk about it, and, ultimately, how to be “critical” in a way that doesn’t just mean being mean. It seems to us that a large problem is that contemporary students have neither the ability or willingness to articulate clearly the conditions or purpose of what they’re dealing with, and until that happens all you have is a state of, at best, treading water, rather than acting progressively in any sense.
At the moment we imagine such a course involving divvying up the toolbox and handing the parts to a number of teachers, who would start by considering the background of that particular component (hand, pointer, pipette, brush, type, dodge & burn, etc.)—what analogue form it represents and why it’s there—then taking that term and proceeding largely how they want in terms of teaching. This line of teaching would always, however, be complicit with what the other teachers were doing and how their respective components were being exploited, and all towards this overall culturally aware end. The idea is that such a course would amount to an attitude, a practical philosophy. I’m reminded here of a notorious statement made by John Reith, director of the BBC, who, in the mid 1930s, claimed the channel never attempted to give the public what it wants but what it ought to have.
Fredericksen: Despite your protests, I enjoy thinking of The Serving Library as an institution. You’ll have letterhead, right? Let’s consider it as an amalgam of library, academy, gallery, and bar. Three of those four institutions have been greatly affected by the development of dispersed information networks, but all four could be broadly, and I think fairly, characterized as slow to exploit the possibilities of the networks. Making books and art objects, physically transporting them from their site of production to the point of sale and then to the place of consumption, it can all seem a bit nineteenth century, no? But we’re in no utopia or dystopia of dematerialization. In my work with the collectors Bill and Ruth True in Seattle, we’ve bought art we’ve seen only as JPEGs, from dealers we’ve never met, in galleries we’ve never visited. But I also print out all the PDFs I read. Actually, I print them out several times, because I don’t file them properly. I’m the market niche for your back-formed Portable Document Format book.
Dexter Sinister: A lot of the time I find myself wondering why we seem to be glorifying procedures—drinking, talking, thinking—that happen in any bar or pub every night across the world. And I could similarly think, hmn, does a bar really need to be “affected by the development of dispersed information networks?” I don’t know, I think our impulse to make something like The Serving Library comes down to being increasingly surrounded by products and places that seem to be all style and no substance; so wrapped in quotation marks of what they want to come across as being, rather than what they might just simply BE, that they can’t breathe. Is that too abstract? I’m talking about the sense that our surroundings are so mediated.
I’m not trying to avoid your question, I just think there’s a quick one-liner answer to it: regarding dispersion, we’ll just do whatever it takes depending on the resources available and the nature of the thing being dispersed—same as it ever was. Our attitude towards “exploiting the possibilities of contemporary networks” is pretty concisely summed up in this introduction to an article on kindred spirits by the Prelinger Library in San Francisco:
They think the conflict between a so-called digital culture and a so-called print culture is fake; they think we should stop celebrating, or lamenting, the discontinuous story of how the circuits will displace the shelves and start telling a continuous story about how the two might fit together. And they have designed a library project—part public archive, part private collection, part digital-appropriation center, part art installation—to suggest where we might begin. The example of the Prelinger is perfect, in fact, because it’s precisely greater than the sum of these parts, without pandering to others’ ideas of what can and can’t be done. This is the sense in which I’m talking about mediation: the Prelinger is determinedly non-mediated. It is what it is. It’s not trying desperately to come across as an “art installation.” That’s just one of a bunch of slippery terms the journalist tries to stick together to give a reader some kind of reference point.
Fredericksen: Both Dexter Sinister and The Serving Library are or will be physically sited, but these manifestations are conspicuously modest and coexist with robust and dispersed networks. What’s the relationship between dispersion and location as it plays out in your work? And is it harder for you two to maintain a singular personal identity now that you live 2,400 miles away from each other?.
Dexter Sinister: I suppose the obvious analogy is that The Serving Library is based on the model of the server, and like all other contemporary servers its objective demands are simple: as big as it needs to be to administer adequately from as cheap a location as possible. Maybe our dealing with the distance between NY and LA is good practice. It certainly hasn’t seemed to make any difference to what we do, other than the difficulty of maintaining store hours on Saturdays, though I suppose this very fact of the store being open or not is implied in your question. For sure I think one of the things we’re very conscious of is that whatever the physical manifestation of The Serving Library is, it has to be consistent, open regularly, however occasional. These things have to be done with rigour and intent to have the kind of urgency we’re after. Too many contemporary projects are too content with a glamorous explosion and quick burn-out. It’s always been important to us to open the store on Saturdays even when no one comes in because it’s swelteringly hot or pouring down with rain, in order to develop a kind of trust with an invisible audience—and like any trust it’s quite rightly built over a long period of time.
One obvious lesson from the distance, and what that implies in terms of publishing in general and dispersing across broader and broader networks, is precisely how you consider your form of address when it’s going out to increasingly unpredictable audiences. In the upcoming issues of Dot Dot Dot I mentioned earlier that I hope to be more direct, we’re considering using the fact of publishing simultaneously in Korean (following an outside offer to do so) in order to dictate this simplicity, i.e., working on the basis that the simpler the language we use, the more accurately it will be able to be translated. But even then, how would we know if it’s accurate or not? Only by asking someone we trust who can speak both languages and who “gets” the meta-language of Dot Dot Dot in the first place, i.e., how it’s as much _about _language as anything else. So we naturally end up more and more reliant on other people and have to be more and more careful about who those people are.
Finally, to come back to the difference between Dexter Sinister and The Serving Library, I’m itching to invoke a line from the late David Foster Wallace quoted in a recent New Yorker article, in which he responds to the idea of whether his work is “Realism” or “Metafiction,” by claiming it’s not really one or the other, or both, but rather “if anything, it’s meta-the-difference-between-the-two.” I think this articulation is extremely enlightening, timely, and profound. So to very tentatively apply this idea to all we’ve been discussing above, I’d say that whereas Dexter Sinister has been a kind of naive but “realist” public exploration of the conditions of contemporary publishing at street level, learning on the job, and The Serving Library is more concerned with organizing a “meta”-structure (which we generally refer to as an umbrella) based on what we’ve learnt, the real project is, well….
About this Article
Re: The Serving Library was first published in Fillip 10 in Fall 2009. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.
Dexter Sinister is the compound name of David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey. Operating from the basement of 38 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side in New York City, they collapse all aspects of publishing into one space.Eric Fredericksen is Director of Western Bridge, Seattle. He is currently working with Dexter Sinister on An Invitation to an Infiltration, a group exhibition opening in January 2010 at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.
The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.
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