Guest artist Aron Rossman-Kiss watches the meandering shape of the marshes – and sees a model for the library. A library with blurring edges, in which sorting and order lose contour and power. Referencing the natural landscape, he develops a metaphor for ambiguous, resilient archives.
Impossible Library: You spent some time as our artist in resident at the Impossible Library. Could you share some of your impressions of the impossible library as a library, archive, stacks. What did you find?
Aron Rossman-Kiss: I found the space itself to be an idea with lots of potential. While there, it was interesting to see how different publication-languages interact with each other, all these different dialects. And it’s good to simply wander through different magazines. Another nice aspect — which I ended up using in my presentation — is that there are lots of first issues. I was going through these magazines and you see an editor's note at the beginning of most first issues. There is something kind of touching about it, even when you take a corporate magazine. To see what leads someone to start a new publication.
I was curious to see how this grid-logic was present in both a physical space and in the library
IL: You also wound up having an artist talk, entitled "Reading Marshes" about mud and dirt and the strange smells of nomad’s land, co-creating the border between land and sea, but also destroying possible shelters. When thinking of a library one might think of a shelter or a safe space. So I am wondering where is the bridge between the marshes and the library? How are marshes and archives connected?
ARK: Before coming to Hamburg, I was reading a lot about the history of the city, and particularly about the land reclamation projects from 12th century onward. When I arrived, I asked one of the members why the place was called the Impossible Library; they said that originally some of the stacks were in Oberhafen a flood-prone area. It was impossible to make a library there and it had to be moved to a dryer location. This resonated with my research: I was curious about the natural and material conditions that give rise to an archive, about how these structure a library or an archive — and are then projected back onto the world. This interplay between these two cartographies is something I tried to explore throughout my stay.
I ended up reading quite a bit about the history of Hamburg and the Elbe and the drying of the marshes here. But I also went way back, to the very first archives in Mesopotamia; research has shown that the first urban centres, the first states, were born in marshlands, in what’s today Southern Iraq. Starting from there, I was interested in tracing the birth of the modern nation-states, which seem to always happen as a struggle against the marshland. You can take the example of Hamburg, but later also in the Middle East — basically in every nation-state — marshes are being dried out and a gridded, readable landscape is established. I was curious to see how this grid-logic was present in both a physical space and in the library. In the end, my talk was also about how we need to make libraries more “marshy.” More ambiguous, more resilient.
When we start believing in these categories, these eternal laws, what is ambiguous or amorphous or amphibious will get lost
IL: What role did the IL’s archive play?
ARK: Initially, when I came to Hamburg, I was interested in different methods of classification. But then, seeing the collection, I felt it was perhaps not totally suited to make a work about the general logic of classification, this idea of making knowledge — or a territory — readable, legible, classifiable, and exploring what is lost in this process. During the talk, I showed a little except from Alain Resnais, who made this short film about the national library in Paris. A very dramatic voice-over says: "New disciplines were invented to classify these books — then they became laws".When we start believing in these categories, these eternal laws, what is ambiguous or amorphous or amphibious will get lost, there will be no space for them.
IL: Was this along the lines of creating counter narratives: through archives? And that sort of manifesting in the geography.
ARK: In the course of my research, I was also reading quite a bit of the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler. She has done lots of work about reading the archive against the grain, so-to-say, particularly in the colonial context. She initially worked mainly around the Dutch Indies but then she extended her research in interesting ways to show how such structures were used (and challenged) worldwide. One can also follow Foucault to show that basically every ordering desire also includes its demise — every order is built on disorder. The marsh is built on an order that’s inherent to it, it’s not only a very complex ecosystem but also a very resilient one, much more resilient than a dry, gridded landscape. I was curious to see how this metaphor — this opposition between the gridded and the marshy order — could be applied to a place that produces knowledge, such as a library or an archive.
IL: Your work "July Days" is about different speculative narratives from a particular image archive. It’s about bringing "a choir of voices together". What role does this bringing together or gathering play in your work?
ARK: Generally speaking, lots of my work is based on fieldwork or inspired by anthropology; I am interested to see how different discourses get built up based on different voices, and how the whole narrative process is constructed. "July Days" is perhaps a bit different. The whole work started with an image that allegedly shows some revolutionary soldiers during the Russian Civil War holding a flag with Malevich’s black square. I found the image while reading this article by T.J. Clark which ultimately asks the question: What does it mean when art erupts with such forcefulness into everyday life? What does it say about life? What does it say about art? The image represents a moment where revolutionary art is at its apex. In the end, it turned out this photo does not show the Black Square and probably these were not even revolutionary soldiers. But I was interested in our desire to see something in this image — and what this desire said about our relation to archives, archival images, and how it relates to art or art history.
IL: For the library you went in to the field to create videos of the marshland…
ARK: I simply prepared this short video for the vitrine of the Impossible Library — it is a vitrine work. It features footage shot near the place where the arms of the Elbe meet in Willhelmsburg Island. It is one of the rare tidal forests left in Europe.
IL: You combined them with slogans like: "archives to the people"?
ARK: The piece is made for the storefront: these little slogans or sentences refer to research and my thought process about the marshlands, about archives and their intermingling. It was a playful way to make people stop and join me in the library.
At one point during my stay, I tried to create categories and organise the stacks myself, but then I realised the material was not appropriate for this type of work. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of the material at the Impossible Library itself — but rather about my own desire. It was interesting to find myself in the position of the librarian who wants to imprint their narrative on an unruly body of knowledge. I found the categories that were emerging from the material too scattered and they did not necessarily coincide with the categories I had in mind. This was an important realisation; understanding that I had also wanted to impose my own narrative and why this could not work out.
Interview: Nina Prader
Support: Torben Körschkes, Annika Dorau, Ina Römling und Urs Spindler
Fotos: Torben Körschkes, Ina Römling / Aron Rossmann-Kiss