The hectic blessing of wireless search-functions has, paradoxically, returned us to books, encouraging a deeper bond with the library, whether private or public. This is a wander back through the stacks of a recent book- and library-related project.
I had no plan to return to the book; I was invited by Edinburgh University, who commissioned this work for the entrance to the Basil Spence designed Main Library, when it was renovated in 2010.
The artwork evolved into two pieces, an embedded mesostic poem for the entrance – in which the embedded source phrase is marked by dots – and an edition of 50,000 bookmarks, secreted in books throughout the library.
The quotation I composed the poem around, which also conceals it, was taken from the will of the library's first benefactor, who stated that his books were given to the library, 'thair to remain', in permanent safekeeping, as a memorial to his life.
The methodology of coding, and the act of embedding inspired the main commission, which responded to the original architecture.
When I first moved to Edinburgh I would sometimes sneak into the library, under the pretext of delivering material to the Special Collection – when I was working with Hamish Henderson he would sometimes send me over with a few letters, to sell to the library, as a handy source of income.
On my visits, as I climbed up the stairs, the vertical wooden bars would catch my curiosity; I assumed they were decorative, until a friend pointed out the obvious purpose, to screen the light. Spence used a similar regular rhythmic device on the facade of the library he designed for Swiss Cottage and, in a heavier manner, in the old City Library, Newcastle, which was pulled down a few years ago.
Watching students queue to borrow books – jealous of their privilege – I realised that nowadays the entire collection is mapped and managed by barcode, and that this digitised system of bars and spaces was an intense patterning that reiterated the wooden bars. Where Spence aspired to a perfect evenness, offering the building a wraparound of calm, the other code, in its asymmetry, was particular to the assigned numerical tag that belonged to each book, and spoke to its unique content. It also spoke to the ascendency of binary in our culture.
The same sequence of letters can produce a barcode – scanners read letters as well as numbers – and so I had all of the poems translated into binary.
Ewen MacLachlan’s Gaelic verse: comprising a translation of Homer’s Iliad, books I-VIII, and original compositions, 1937 MacLachlan, Ewen (1773 – 1822) PB1648.M325 Macl.
There to remain: the phrase interrogates any artwork that made to belong within the public domain – what should remain, and how. This piece floats between the weight of concrete, embedded letter forms, the books covers, which encase, signs on shelf-ends, bookmarks slipped between pages, and translated into barcode.
Thanks to Denny Colledge, of the library, an entire version of the text has been produced as an on-line catalogue, giving all 100 poems, along with their notes and the shelfmarks of the specific books they refer to. The reader can not only work their way through the poems, but source all of the books that inspired them.
For a recent exhibition at VRC, Dundee, A Book is a Performance, I invited Sean Scott to take some bookmarks into the University library, where they belong. He made appropriate use of the space provided between poem and shelfmark.
Mesostic Interleaved, a book collecting all 100 poems is available here. A limited number of complete boxed sets of the bookmarks is available from Studio Alec Finlay and Ingleby Gallery.
Other current book-related projects include the bee library.
photography: Hannah Devereux, Sean Scott, Edinburgh University, and Robert Alan Jamieson 2011-14