Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

Browsing the AAAARG Library
Jeff Khonsary

In the Fall of 2010, Fillip commissioned the AAAARG Library, a site-specific installation, in conjunction with the the fifth annual NY Art Book Fair, held at MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York. The installation was a collaboration between Fillip, artist Sean Dockray, and AAAARG, an online platform for the redistribution of textual material.

Begun in 2005, AAAARG operates through an open community of artists and scholars who help collect and circulate an ever-increasing catalogue of critical, theoretical, and philosophical texts. Used by tens of thousands of students, educators, curators, and artists, the AAAARG Web site provides access to books and essays on critical theory, art, architecture, and film through a set of discreet postings linked by various keywords, bibliographic lists, and an active commenting system.

Developed around a near 10,000-item dot matrix printed card catalogue that indexes the content of the AAAARG Web site, the Library attempted to create a temporary, participatory framework within the highly active space of the NY Art Book Fair. During the course of the Fair, members of the Fillip staff served as librarians, fulfilling book requests from library “patrons” accessing the physical catalogue. These patrons, NY Art Book Fair visitors, were given paper request forms on which to write titles they were interested in reading. Links to these files (typically OCRed PDFs created by scanning printed books) were then sent to patrons’ respective e-mail addresses.

A computer and scanner were available in the installation so that patrons of the library could share material with the communities of both the Fair and AAAARG. Exhibiting publishers were encouraged to submit material to the Library in physical or digital form throughout the project.

The AAAARG Library existed alongside the paid economy of the Fair, offering an extra-institutional space that developed through a symbiotic (rather than an oppositional) relationship with the systems of exchange that structured the Fair. In this way, it mirrored the position of AAAARG itself, which, as is explained on its Web site, was established to be specifically para-institutional: “Rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them.” This strategy is played out in both the different formations of AAAARG itself and its political position vis-à-vis discussions of copyright and intellectual property.

In daily use, the AAAARG Web site serves an academic community lacking a physical structure or institutional affiliation. It bridges the interests of many different types of users who mobilize the site because they lack the funds, ability, or energy to access the same material elsewhere. This community coalesces around both the electronic discussions that fuel the development of and research with the archive and, importantly, the activities of other non-institutional institutions such as the Public School, a global “school with no curriculum” co-founded by Sean Dockray, one of AAAARG’s initial architects. For the Public School, AAAARG serves as an off-off-campus library and digital textbook distribution point, facilitating student access to course readings through a semi-structured (and semi-chaotic) collection of bibliographies, called “issues,” on the site.

Through its relationship to the various institutions and communities that both facilitate and co-opt its database, AAAARG and its users exist within complex legal and moral space. As Dockray has explained, AAAARG was developed not, as many think, to contest intellectual property rights, but, more specifically, to address issues of access. This has not dissuaded publishers—most notably OMA and Verso Books—from submitting cease and desist letters to AAAARG. (The irony of the latter’s action was not lost on many, inciting hundreds of comments on the AAAARG Web site and even sparking a spin-off site, Fuck Verso, dedicated to redistributing Verso publications.) These take-down notices issued by the publishers of titles distributed by the site have always been complied with by AAAARG, while other attempts to take the site offline have been thwarted in various ways (often through subtle changes to the name; thus the ever-changing URL of AAAARG).

Within the space of the Fair, the Library emphasized AAAARG’s complex relationship to its community of users and the (often overlapping) professional and institutional stakeholders in its content. It was significant that the project was situated alongside Fillip’s official presence within the Fair, just down the hall from other publishers, artists, and writers who form a community of friends and colleagues in the relatively small (but intensely diverse) world of independent art publishing.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of the thousands of people who visited the Library had never heard of AAAARG. More curious, though, was that only a fraction of the people to whom the concept of the Web site was explained questioned its basic premises (or its role in a fair created by a bookseller for other booksellers).

Despite a lack of litigious melodrama, several productively awkward conversations did occur—mostly initiated through conversations that began “Is Sean Dockray here?” or “Where are AAAARG’s servers located?” The ambiguity of the intention behind these comments underscores the tenuous position of a non-organization like AAAARG. Unfortunately, theirs is a locale whose topography will be dramatically shaped by the (re)actions of others. As digital distribution becomes increasingly marketable through a new prevalence of e-book readers, authors and readers may begin to demand freer access to information that such devices potentially promise, yet intellectual property may also become increasingly centralized and commodified by those who seek to control its dissemination.

The AAAARG Library was developed as an artist’s project for Fillip 13. It is a continuation of Fillip’s interest in investigating the potential overlaps between magazine publishing and public programming. The project was curated by Jeff Khonsary and realized with the help of Fillip staff members Michael Cadamia, Kristina Lee Podesva, and Kate Steinmann. Special thanks to AA Bronson, Peter Russo, Liza Eurich, Publication Studios, and David Horvitz.

This project was made possible through the support of Printed Matter, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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