Flying Object is a nonprofit art and publishing organization located in an old fire station in Hadley, Massachusetts. This Flying Object interview series will serve to document some of the writers, artists and performers that pass through—as well as activity in our own community.
One person’s rat brain is another’s treasure. At the Reanimation Library’s temporary branch at Flying Object, I flip through glossy x-rays of rat brains, charts of electrocardiogram wavelengths, of bird houses, of sea canyons. In the right hands, an image is never antiquated, though the mode of appreciation changes. I don’t pick up Differential Diagnosis of the Electrocardiogram to learn. The author’s original intent has come and gone. Instead, I watch a thought morph across time, suspended between the false poles of aesthetics and information, in a fluid of anthropological disconnect.
Some could view Andrew Beccone’s Reanimation Library as a collection of mid-20th century failure, post-war America slipping on a banana peel for the 21st century’s amusement, utopian ambition reduced to point-and-laugh novelty. In their time, these books mounted earnest attempts to solve the problems of the modern world: to catalog and understand experience from the clouds to the bedroom to the sea floor, to teach us who we are. And they failed, or were dismissed as quackery, or disproved. Science writes over itself.
So what to do with this discarded material? Beccone’s collection emerges from this dust, this atomic fallout. Over the course of 12 years, he has assembled an island of misfit toys, books from these post-war years to be appreciated for their images, their ambitious titles. He does not base selection on assigning cultural worth, some arbitrary canon based on “importance” or “relevance.” His library champions a contrary definition of timelessness.
And from the collection’s middle finger to “relevance” comes its charm and vitality. Edward Tufte, hero to Beccone and pioneer of data visualization, says, “The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on mere flatland?” Beccone collects these flat attempts, an undertaking arguably as preposterous as the utopian dreams of modernism. His books are as valiant as they are absurd, profound as they are crude, foolish and fascinating. —Patrick Gaughan
Patrick Gaughan: You say you chose the books mostly for their visual content: photographs, illustrations, diagrams. From my brief experience, the collection seems to lean towards the sciences, instructional material, outmoded theory. What genres do you find yourself including in the Library?
Andrew Beccone: It’s funny, I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I still have a hard time understanding my processes. There’s an intuitive part: how I respond to particular images. There’s no particular science to what makes the cut and what doesn’t. It depends on what I encounter. I look for images that are trying to explain something but fall short. I got some great books up here one could label as occult or crackpot, and I really like those too, because those books often use the trope of presenting information in a kind of dry way: diagrams of fantastic spaces or bizarre cosmology. But in some ways they don’t look that different from a physics textbook. We, as a society, have decided that physics is totally spot-on and pagan rituals are quacked, crackpot.
PG: And I’d say I’m just as fascinated by the crackpot titles and chapter headings as by the images.
AB: Well, the more hyper-specific a book is, the more interesting it is to me. So a general biology textbook, which I have five or six of, they can be really great, but the biology of some specific thing from some specific time always ends up being more interesting. For instance, I have a handful of books on taxidermy, and then I came across a book called Freeze-drying Biological Specimens. It’s essentially a lab manual for freeze-drying animals, but doing it in such a way that they don’t look like raisins when they’re done. Apparently, if you freeze-dry the animal, you keep the entire thing with all of its organs and bones. To me, that’s an amazing Reanimation Library book. Scientists are putting pygmy shrews into freeze-dryers! [both laugh] That image in itself is wacky, and then they published a book. I have to say the books I found up here were just astounding. Bookstores up here are incredible.
PG: And there’s just so many of them. So how would this branch compare to Mexico City or some of the other places you’ve done branches?
AB: Mexico City was incredible and overwhelming. I didn’t want to go to all corners of Mexico City to find things, but you don’t have to. There’s this little grid in the old historic center of town, in otherwise the most chaotic city structure ever, and every street sells something different: dressmakers on one block, camera stores on the next, and one block is used book stores and every used bookstore had 300,000 books in it, and you would walk out of that one and into the next and 300,000 more books. I started to feel sick to my stomach. How do you even begin when you’re confronted with that much?
PG: Sounds maddening.
AB: Totally. It’s like, “Oh my God! I can’t believe we’ve done all of this.”
PG: For sure. But it feels like that’s what the library does, right? Taking this cultural detritus (300,000 books plus 300,000 plus how ever many) and distilling it to a manageable, curated number. You feel sick so I don’t have to. And it seems like a huge part of this is the art of the browse. So if you have tons and tons of material, how do you decide?
AB: Well, for instance, I went to Grey Matter twice and probably spent three hours there the first time and an hour the second time. That place was really crazy because within the first 10 minutes I probably had six books, and then realized, oh, this book on the structure of the sea floor is one of 30 books on the structure of the sea floor because they probably bought some professor’s collection. So then, I really want a book about the structure of the sea floor but I have to go through all of them. After two hours I start to get pretty spacey.
PG: What are some good ones you found around here?
AB: Body Hot Spots. It’s some sort of crack-pot…I mean…maybe it’s not. I have to look at it more closely, but it sort of looks like it’s a biologist explaining sexual attraction, but in a really absurd and totally hetero-normative 1970s way.
PG: Like clinical?
AB: Clinical, but with a little raciness thrown in. To me that’s an incredible find. The best ones sit on that fault line that separates science from quackery.
* * *
From Body Hot Spots: The Anatomy of Human Social Organs and Behavior.
- Chapter 10: “The Phallic Threat: Giant Penises and Similar Threat Devices”
- Chapter 11: “The Female Lure: Rumps and Legs”
- Chapter 21: “Leathernecks, Pimples, and Smooth Baby Bottoms”
From Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structure (“The Classic Work on Rolfing by its Originator, Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D.”): “Many will read this book hoping that it will answer the question, ‘what is rolfing?’ It does, of course, answer that question, but not in the expected form.” (from the Forward)
- Chapter 4: “Feet: The First Challenge”
- Chapter 8: “The Pelvis Has Many Facets”
- Chapter 17: “Many People Refer to This Drama as Pain”
* * *
PG: So I was paging through a book on sea canyons and my imagination took over, thinking about this entire crew with clunky cameras, decked out in outmoded scuba gear and huge goofy helmets, and I figured out I was feeling nostalgia for something I will never experience.
AB: The two questions that come up a lot, which I think are completely valid, are about irony and nostalgia.
PG: Irony was my next question. [both laugh]
AB: I think it’s hard to build a collection of material like this without bumping into either of those. Even just dealing specifically with books at this point, it’s hard not to see that as a bit of a nostalgic move, right?
PG: That print is losing the battle?
AB: Exactly. I think it’s also very easy to look at how funny this is or have a very ironic stance towards this kind of material. I’m attracted to things that are absurd, but I wouldn’t say that I’m building a joke. You see what I mean? I see how it can be seen ironically or nostalgically, but I would say neither of those are my main focus.
PG: Well, the books all come from roughly the same time. I was flipping through and noticing publication dates and was finding things from roughly ’49 up to ’78.
AB: Right, and it’s interesting because it’s not a nostalgia for my own childhood. I was born in ’74, so most of the collection is from the generation before me. And that’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Psychologically, what’s going on? How come I’m attracted to this? And one of the things I’ve come to realize about the character of the books, after years of collecting, is that they’re all from the height of modernism, when there was this crazy enthusiastic belief in technology and the sense of progress, this weird technological manifest destiny: “We are figuring it all out. We’re sending people to the moon. Everything is moving forward.” Of course, there were plenty of things that weren’t working and in the ’60’s those myths began to fall apart, and you start to see that transition, but the collection never gets into the postmodern era, the era I grew up in, an era of total irony.
PG: So from our vantage point, 40 years later, we’re looking at these utopian dreams diagrammed out in a book, dreams that haven’t come to fruition and are never going to, and that’s almost funny.
AB: It’s almost funny, but it’s also incredibly profound. The gulf between how we think about things now and the language used in books published 40 years ago is massive! Wow, in this incredibly short period of time, the way we understand ourselves in the world has drastically shifted. There’s something jarring about that. Laughing is a response to being overwhelmed by this crazy, seismic shift in perspective.
PG: Like, you’re really going to title this book this? Or, this is really your chapter heading? That’s insane! You’re going to try to attempt this?
AB: Well yeah, and I guess this is where the nostalgia comes in. It seems really wonderful to live in a world where everyone’s like “We can do it!” The world we live in is like, “It’s fucked, it’s fucked, it’s fucked.” It’d be nice to turn that off for a minute, even though it’s wishful thinking. But I think I’ve had that experience of going through some of these books and encountering the text and thinking it’s like seeing an alien civilization, you know?
* * *
The Effects of Atomic Weapons: 400 pages “prepared for and in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission”
- Chapter 2: “Description of an Atomic Explosion”
- Chapter 3: “Shock from Air Burst”
- Chapter 4: “Shock from Underwater and Underground Burst”
A Happier Sex Life: pages of glossy black and white photos of plastic dummies posed in various positions followed by text such as:
- “Position B may also be used for resting after an orgasm achieved in Position A. A fluffy pillow placed under the buttocks produces a unique effect in Position B.”
- “The finishing touch to intercourse is given by the husband with post-coital caresses motivated by his deep love and understanding.”
* * *
PG: I’ve read that you feel you’re straddling this space between library and art, and thinking about curation as art. I’m in your camp. Placing all these books together, stacking referents—to me, that’s communicating an aesthetic, and that’s a piece of art.
AB: The collection grew out of the fact that I used to make a lot of visual art. The collection was built, because I was collecting books for myself. The object-making slowly faded as the library started growing. It was totally unconscious and suddenly I realized this is the artwork. So then obviously since Conceptual Art in the ’60s, people have done all sorts of things, and having a library be an artwork within the framework of Conceptual Art is not that radical at all.
PG: Right, because you’re reframing the found images and found text.
AB: Exactly. But I have some friends that are painters, and I love painters and I love painting, but there can be this real desire to defend the medium and position the medium in relation to other things, and at a really fundamental level I’m like, “Isn’t painting also working with found material?” You didn’t make your paint, you bought your paint. You have things that exist: you have colors, you have materials, and you do something with it. To me, what I do is not that different. It’s like when you look at those diagrams of embryos of chickens and sharks and humans and elephants. At the beginning, they all look the same, and it tracks them and they all end up as these different things. At that early stage, I think the library uses that same process of putting things together. And is your material paint? Is your material other artworks? Is your material books?
(link to image can be found here)
PG: Right. And you’re combining the content of art with the content of the books themselves. Say like going to the Museum of Natural History, where there are all these taxidermy animals and beautiful recreations that are technically art, but the goal is really to teach me about nature.
AB: Probably my favorite museum in New York.
PG: I kind of figured that.
AB: It goes back to the whole cabinet of curiosities thing, pre-art museum and -science museum.
PG: When the two were conflated…
AB: Exactly, this desire to classify everything that still exists. The New Museum is the New Museum, because it’s not MoMA…
PG: Because of slight aesthetic differences…
AB: Yeah, and that can be useful and helpful, but it can keep certain ideas apart, things that otherwise might bump into each other and create interesting results.
PG: Like a taxidermy pygmy shrew next to a Picasso.
AB: Yeah! [both laugh]
Andrew Beccone, an artist and librarian, is the founder and director of the Reanimation Library. He received his Masters in Information and Library Science from the Pratt Institute in 2005. In addition to coordinating the library’s ongoing New York-based activities, he has organized temporary branch libraries in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Chicago; London; Philadelphia; Providence, Rhode Island; Joshua Tree, California; Stamford, Connecticut; Los Angeles, Mexico City and Hadley, Massachusetts. He lives in Brooklyn.
Patrick Gaughan is a poet, performer and critic living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He contributes regularly to Blunderbuss, and has recent work in BOMB, Coldfront and Diagram. He’s an ensemble player in the Connecticut River Valley Poets’ Theater. You can find him on Twitter here.