second shelf

By Heide Hinrichs Elizabeth Haines

Books are important to learn and are a symbol of ‘knowledge’. There are too few non-binary, queer, female and artist of colour writers. second shelf is a project that collects a list of these artists and writers. ‘Other’ writers write about different things. They also write in a different way. second shelf gives lectures and workshops to share this ‘other’ knowledge with students and artists.

While teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, I began to interrogate the role of the institutional library for students, which resulted in the international project, second shelf. This project aimed to expand the kind of subjectivities that were given space in the library.

The participating project advisors recommended books for our library that explore the artistic production of non-binary artists, queer artists, female artists and artists of colour. This list was never intended to be comprehensive but is rather based on the advisor’s own creative experiences and expertise.

Interventions included interviews, lectures and workshops as well as the creation of physical traces of the project on library shelves.

In an educational library, the selection of books has an important role in the process of learning by imitation – especially for art students. After all, books about art and artists offer gateways to see many variations of artistic production. In many cases, they also offer a more concentrated immersion in art worlds than are readily available online.

My grade school teacher always said that the library has all the answers, that it contains the world. We are taught this and believe in it until maybe one day we realise that not all answers are in the library. It is the duty of the library to provide books and resources that properly reflect the diversity, in general, of our world history.

Julia Hong (MA Graduate In Situ, 2019, Royal Academy of Fine Art, Antwerp)

Art libraries offer the means to expand students’ creative and aesthetic vocabularies. Whether or not one believes in an artistic ‘canon’, institutions demonstrate what they believe is important and valuable through their libraries. By investing in particular books and not others, institutions point out to students what to look at.

One important register for disrupting or challenging hegemony is that of satire and irony. In the 1970s, the artist Elaine Sturtevant began an art practice where she meticulously copied select works of her male colleagues. Sturtevant’s practice was a critique of the culture of the art world in which she was working, a world that was dominated by the concept of the lone genius and the autonomous, white male creator.

Within my artistic practice, libraries are unfortunately an occasional resource. Most libraries do not contain enough resources that are relevant to my research. I am selective with the resources that I incorporate into my practice, as it reflects my own perspective, and sadly the shelves of most libraries, especially [in] institutions, do not provide and even continue to silence the underrepresented peoples by keeping them off our shelves, out of the library catalogues.

Julia Hong (MA Graduate In Situ, 2019, Royal Academy of Fine Art, Antwerp)

Deploying processes of learning to ‘act alike’ in order to work against hegemony is a playful strategy with complex, unpredictable effects. This act leaves a cognitive, material and psychic imprint on the protagonist and simultaneously accretes more attention to its target, all while eroding its authority.

Libraries retain their value by welcoming a curious public into a real, palpable, site of exchange. Furthermore, libraries remain one of the last sites in shared urban space where sensitivity and silence is paramount – that same silence, however, can be isolating. As such, the library has the potential to refuse its obsolescence by the creeping omniscience of the internet search-engine.

second shelf aimed to do more than just extend a library collection. Firstly, being a research project, we invited interventions from project advisors and guests that highlighted forces shaping the publishing industry (economic, cultural, political) and the effects those have on library holdings and, by extension, artistic careers. These included interviews, lectures and workshops as well as the creation of physical traces of the project on library shelves.

We were struggling with our appropriation of the power to classify.

Secondly, this project queried the process of mimesis through which artistic subjectivities are memorialised and celebrated or alternatively framed as ephemeral or even de-voiced. Finally, second shelf alive engaged with the library as a physical space, activating it as a site for reflection on its own practice and purpose. The website, co-designed by the advisory team, with Sara De Bondt and Arthur Haegeman, gives a digital form to all of these elements of the project.

By learning to ‘act like’ librarians, second shelf raised unexpected topics of discussion within the advisory group as we struggled with our appropriation of the power to classify, the pragmatics of library management, and institutional geographies. We hope that sharing some of these discussions with students, faculty and staff will provoke more critical thinking about art school canons and resources within participating institutions.

The legacy of second shelf will be the renewed library holdings in the participating institutions and beyond. The discussion that the project has generated will be published in shelf documents (forthcoming in spring/summer 2020).

These qualities generate potent places for activity and exchange. It is crutial that the knowledge they keep remains self-aware and relevant to the current cultural climate – refusing solitary stacks piled high to the ceiling. Interventions like second shelf make audible the alienating silence which saturates these sites and their complacency in upholding the empire of knowledge.

second shelf is Heide Hinrichs (kunstenaar en lesgever op de Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen), Elizabeth Haines (wetenschapshistoricus aan de University of Bristol), Jo-ey Tang (director of exhibitions in de Beeler Gallery van het Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio), Marisa C. Sánchez (kunsthistoricus aan de University of British Columbia in Vancouver), Ersi Varveri (kunstenaar die woont en werkt in Antwerpen) en Susanne Weiß (freelance curator in Berlin).