Pollyanna and Peppermint: Libraries as a Site of Praxis
by Sepake Angiama, Clare Butcher, Brian McBay, and Jesse McKee
JESSE MCKEE: We are here today to talk about two different programs in art and education – aneducation, which was part of documenta 14 in both Athens and Kassel, and 221A, in Vancouver, which recently changed its programming model to a distributed system of research, public programs, fellowships and infrastructure production that is rooted in a new space called Pollyanna Library that hosts the organization’s praxis at large. 221A was a participant at documenta 14’s gathering Under the Mango Tree in Athens and Kassel, and since we both have taken the library as a site to work from and program through, I thought we could have a rich comparative conversation about our approaches to our ideas, sites and publics.
BRIAN MCBAY: 221A was founded by a student art collective, mostly antagonistic to the university we were studying at, Emily Carr University. After the first five years of arguing, we moved into a storefront in Vancouver’s Chinatown, a particularly embattled neighbourhood undergoing gentrification. I suppose it’s somewhat personal because my family had a business in Chinatown for quite a number of years. It closed down before I moved to Vancouver, so it’s a bit disconnected from me.
221A first operated under similar conditions to typical artist initiatives, where we found ways to augment the cost of running a program by sharing the rent and had a small portion of time and space dedicated to thinking about what was critical to us. We grew, not without struggle, from that collective model to a more expanded, partially government-supported organization over the next five years.
JM: Brian, you mentioned you were all students when you formed, but what’s important to add is that you studied across the art and design faculties. I hope what has resulted came from our different trainings and backgrounds. Brian and Michelle Fu came through industrial and graphic design; Stephan Wright and I from contemporary art, and then Vincent Tao from critical studies, activism and social organizing.
Our programming model at 221A revolves around a series of fellows who are with us for intermittent periods of time, anywhere from three months to two years. The fellows develop long-term projects based in research. The outcomes of the fellowships will be some sort of social, cultural or ecological infrastructure that exists in the world. As an example, one of our fellows, Amy Nugent, is investigating the histories of artists Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. They were lifelong collaborators, sharing a home and studio. They passed away three weeks apart in 1968 and had no children. You couldn’t have a shared will at that time through a partnership like theirs, so they had matching wills that decreed that all of their remaining artworks and estate should be sold off and a fund should be started for sculptors in Canada. There was a clause in their will that details a Sculpture Fund for institutions to acquire sculptures by women artists in their collections. Loring and Wyle’s works were then donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario and their estate was donated to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Amy is working to fulfill their final wishes by creating the Sculpture Fund, while also investigating their histories and the current state of art acquisition funding. Questions we’re asking through the programming will reframe the notion of the artist’s estate and where the responsibility lies to honour those artists’ wishes. On the other side of this there will be some kind of economic infrastructure that will support women and non-binary artists in Canada.
To centre or facilitate this new research-based model, we renovated the former gallery space into Pollyanna Library. It is about 150 m2 and includes our collection stacks and there is a browsable catalogue on our website (polly-anna.ca). The space also has a reading room that can transition into an event space for the public programs led by the fellows, as well as our keyholders, who are community partners that use the space for their needs, such as the Chinatown Action Group or more recently, the Vancouver Tenants Union.
SEPAKE ANGIAMA: I feel like aneducation was an institution within an institution. Perhaps one that has a parasitical relationship to the host. Mainly because we operated on many different sites, in many different venues. While there was a kind of integrated approach to thinking about documenta 14 and working with the artists of documenta 14, the frameworks that aneducation provided were autonomous from the exhibition and the public program itself. So, in essence, I think it allowed a certain amount of freedom. There is definitely a symbiosis or an element of feeding off of something else, but I do feel as if aneducation created its own culture.
Clare, you were the coordinator for aneducation in Kassel; it would be interesting to hear what you see the infrastructure of aneducation to be.
CLARE BUTCHER: Brian and Jesse, you brought up the fact that your programs are built on the strengths of the diversity within the team. Sepake, your approach was always to allow people their space and to think together about our strengths, our interests and how could that make for a program that follows desires. That was a word that we used quite a lot, and was definitely one that I’m not used to using in programming.
In Athens, the education team worked from the former library at the Athens School of Fine Art (ASFA). In Kassel, aneducation’s space was called Peppermint and it opened prior to the exhibitions. It became an immediate conversation starter. We ended up coming up with a mythology around “why Peppermint.” The name Peppermint became an useful metaphor not just for a multi-functional space, but also for the ways in which aneducation could grow in many contexts, put down root systems in different soil types and use its shoots and leaves for many purposes. Our root system was deeply entwined with converging knowledges around educational methodologies and reform pedagogies, which gradually took shape in our working space in the form of a library.
JM: It’s interesting how you brought up the idea of desire for a library. Sepake or Clare, could you speak about the role that the collections played in forming your approach to programming at ASFA? You also had the Material Matters at the EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art) exhibition site in Athens and the Burckhardt library collection in Kassel at Peppermint.
SA: I think libraries were probably more pertinent to documenta 14 and to aneducation in a way. It was this experience of having somebody’s library. The main staple of Peppermint was the library of Lucius and Annemarie Burckhardt, and then we also collected a library of materials from some of the artists in the exhibitions.
CB: To echo your [221A] space, it was then very interesting to see how dynamic and how diverse a library space can be, and how many different functions it could have along the way. That was definitely something that we learned on a very embodied level. It’s important to understand Peppermint’s library, as a way to connect to the fragmentation of our program a bit.
The Burckhardts were dynamic practitioners. Lucius Burckhardt had done a lot on the level of local politics in Switzerland. His wife, Annemarie, was an artist, and they worked side-by-side for most of their lives. For us, the notion of collection always raises this question of legacy. How could a library act as a lens to question that notion of legacy on a broader scale? Also in connection with the history of documenta, and to the characters that are always resurrected within that legacy: Arnold Bode, the founder, but also Harald Szeemann, and all these dominant male figures within curatorial history. The library became a way to think about the history of education within documenta, which is not nearly as monumental as its curatorial history.
The collection belonging to the Burckhardts wasn’t even their main library; it was the books that they had left in their office after leaving their teaching posts in Kassel. They were part of the architecture, landscape planning and urban planning department. They worked there from the ‘70s until the ‘90s, so you can imagine that they had built up quite a collection, but we weren’t sure if this was actually stuff that they’d really wanted or surely they would have taken it on with them to Weimar. This assemblage of leftover books, nonetheless, is some kind of biography and that brought us to also think about the context of Kassel – thinking about the economy of art and its relationship to the city.
Out of these books, the notions of mapping and walking became really important for us. Walking specifically relating to the Burckhardts’ practice of Spaziergangswissenschaft, which is the science of walking or “strollology.” It made a lot of professors angry at the time that they had the gall to call what was very intuitive and difficult to measure a science. Strollology wasn’t something that was easy to evaluate, but this was the whole point. We began to ask: could one build a curriculum around something that’s so embodied and so difficult to see what conclusions might be reached at the beginning?
SA: The library became quite active, because we had these objects, these books that sat on the shelves for so long. We had to think about how do we get in there, how do we enter this collection? How do we come to terms with what we’ve got here? So, Clare, with Dieter Roelstraete, devised a program called “Unpacking Burckhardt,” which of course comes from a very favourite text of Clare’s, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” by Walter Benjamin . We first invited Dieter to make a selection of books, and to talk about why he selected these books. We started to see libraries within libraries, and we started to make our own library within that library. We made this selection of books relating to radical education and pedagogies, and schools, and we started to see a relationship between those books.
CB: Laurie White, a student from the University of British Columbia, worked on a wall display in conversation with a wonderful local illustrator in Kassel, Carmen José, along with some inspiring ideas from Sepake. They were thinking about how important it was to create connections between different voices which in a library is not always self-evident. So, to understand that if two books are next to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have anything to do with one another, but they could. The writers could have bumped into each other at some point in time, or shared a conversation at the coffee machine, who knows? Laurie took on that task on of annotating and speculating about what possible connections there could have been between this collection of pedagogues we found, and writers thinking about education.
It relates to the history of the university in Kassel as a university that came out of the student protests of ‘68 in Europe, and thinking about educational reform as an important foundation for the university. You had amazing thinkers like Ivan Illich passing through Kassel and Paolo Freire who had spent time in Illich’s CIDOC [Intercultural Documentation Centre] in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We tried to create a display that helped visitors understand these relationships, at least in an annotated sense.
Contributors to the gathering Under the Mango Tree, a major program that was part of documenta 14, took up the task of further complicating those relationships. Vincent Tao, the Librarian from 221A was especially important in that exchange, introducing the Pollyanna Library and the questions he’s been chewing on – thinking about digesting the word and reading as a social practice. This is something that could be a shared experience, and not require prior education or prior knowledge. The library and its extension became a resonant sounding board that could challenge the logic of collection itself and make you think: why are there certain voices on the shelf and not others? It was also important to see the gaps between those books, just as much as the connections there, and challenge how the Burckhardt library had been built, and what voices were missing. A large part of that was also identifying which women had been involved in the urban practices referenced within the library but who remained somehow written out of it.
SA: Brian, I want to ask you about starting the space at 221A. You mentioned there was a moment where you were no longer just angry students making something, maybe to annoy your professors, but actually you’re fully formed as an institution, and then you have a kind of responsibility. Do you have a sense of where 221A is going? I relate the library and the archive quite closely together. I just wonder, what’s the significance of the library for you as a space within 221A?
BM: One way to think about it is that the library is sort of the centre of our practice. Clare, you were speaking about desire. The desire that people have here in Vancouver is for more time and money. Canada’s university system is really a way for people without any credit to get low-interest loans and to use their student loans towards more interesting endeavours. 221A came from a desire to pay artists a little bit better and to have access to one of the scarcest resources: time.
JM: Prior to joining the team, I had some open time between working at institutions and I spent a lot of time at public and academic libraries in Vancouver. I noticed that I would always run into someone I knew in the library. They would tell me what they were reading, and I would tell them what I was doing there, and then we would have a conversation and it might send us off to look at something else, or consider something. I thought we needed a space where we can come together, where we can talk about the shifts we’re all experiencing in our lives and work and ask questions about how we can get through together. A library is a pretty standard way to collect ideas and knowledge, most of us seem to believe in that. It’s also an infrastructure that was one of the first infrastructures of the welfare state for education, and it was free.
Our shelves are quite sparse, but that’s optimistic. Our collection is subdivided by the research fellows, who each develop a collection dedicated to their research. The public programming is then distributed from that collection. We’ve already developed several collections out of the 221A’s N.O.P.E program, which is our Youth Program, which was in 2016 and 2017 led by Vincent Tao. N.O.P.E is a fluid acronym that can stand for many things – the first year was “Notes on Political Ecologies”, and this year it’s “Notes on Permanent Education”. The group can use that acronym and take it in whatever direction they need to develop their collection – whether that’s about housing rights, or for instance, one of our most recent participants from that program, Yu Su, a DJ and music producer, developed a speculative sound archive system for us to use. Out of that came a programmable door chime with a collection of commissioned sound files, that can play when the library’s door opens. Artists’ works are in there, we have books, we have ideas, we have objects, we have living documents that go in and out.
SA: This notion of the future is something we all have our method in – in terms of the board, or for funding potential. In terms of survival, there is an element of having to put something out there into the future. You wouldn’t invest in a library if you didn’t imagine you’d be there in five years. I’m interested in this connection between the library and reading as an act that might create temporary community. I experienced this with Under the Mango Tree with this reading session that was led by Vincent Tao, Clare and Sofía Olascoaga. Although this was a group of people who didn’t really know each other before, I felt like that act of reading somehow created this shared or collective moment. For us, we were there on a very temporary scale, you guys [with the Pollyanna Library] are there on a much more permanent and long-term scale. I’m wondering about how that affects your relationship to the community? When I say “community,” also, what community?
JM: One of the ideas of having these fellows who are developing distinct collections is that each of these projects will then develop its own community and audience. As an example, we just hosted a reading group around the writing of Catherine Malabou that was led by Am Johal and Amy Kazymerchyk from Simon Fraser University and Shelly Rosenblum from the University of British Columbia. Malabou was visiting Vancouver to speak at a symposium hosted by the UBC’s Brain Health Centre. In anticipation of her visit, we did a call for people who would be interested in reading and discussing her writing on plasticity, brain science and continental philosophy – a pretty broad range. We even had a security guard from the university, who reads philosophy while he watches the security cameras at night, to develop his ethics of surveillance. That was a good pilot project for us to see how the public could arrive at the library from many locations of thought and practice, [to] read and work together.
BM: I think one of the reasons we chose a library is that libraries are presumed to be dying – that libraries won’t exist in the future because the internet will take over as the place of information. Within that obsolescence, you see this struggle at public libraries or civic libraries where they’re including these digitizing platforms. In Vancouver, our main library branch has a kind of “laboratory” for people to come and experiment with their electronics inside the library. So, its functionality has shifted to the point where reading is less valuable, and something that we realized requires different layers of social activity. Maybe this is what ties into your concept with the Peppermint library in Kassel. Here, in Chinatown we’re fortunate to have Chinese Benevolent Societies, which are property-owning family- and clan-based non-profits, which were set up some 50–100 years ago in response to the de facto segregation of Chinatown. The Benevolent Societies became social clubs as much as they were also self-organized education spaces and housing organizers, with their own security systems, food structures, and not without their own patriarchies and other problems too. But there is lots for us to learn from the idea of creating a world within this Anglophone-dominated Vancouver we’re in. I have been imagining the library as a place where we can contribute to both knowledge production and as a space of everyday kinship in response to predatory urban practices.
Only 10 or 15 years ago, these Chinese Benevolent Societies were looked at as obsolete relics of the past, because of the false idea that Canada had already emerged from the struggle of racism. Now, they have surfaced as relevant legacy institutions, because they are able to respond to the politics today – they provide low rent to tenants like ourselves, small businesses and residential homes, mostly for seniors. And they also have become renewed protest grounds for the community in opposition to unchecked development here. So, maybe 50 years in the future, rather than a clan-based or family-based model, we can imagine a kinship-oriented one. Adding these layers of social life could reclaim the library as a practice of collective care. But I think a librarian might tell us that we aren’t running a library. We also hired somebody who’s not a librarian, and we called him a librarian! As we think to the future, is aneducation a distant memory already? Or is it something you’re still working towards?
SA: It feels very present actually, weirdly. It’s been five months since documenta came to an end, but I think I’m still working through a lot of the effects of that. During documenta 14, there were a lot of neologisms, a lot of terms. As Clare said, we were building the aneducation program at the same time that the exhibition was being developed and while trying to develop an understanding of what documenta 14 as an institution represented. One of my colleagues, Anton Kats, who’s an artist, said that we’re often trying to deal with non-representational forms of knowledge, ways of disseminating information, and creating convivial spaces. But, sometimes not convivial spaces – feeling uncomfortable is also maybe part of learning and notions of unlearning. Those notions of unlearning are constantly unfolding, especially in a context like where I am now that I’m in Montreal, while in residence at SBC Gallery. I’ve been looking at some of the material that we developed for the documenta 14 educators and going through the exhibition. We tried to think about sustainable ways so what we were producing and making didn’t just exist with the exhibition.
An artist that I met with you, Jesse, in Vancouver, Gareth James, told me that he’s trying to remove himself from the authorship of his work; to de-centre himself. I remember thinking, that’s just an impossible task! But that’s actually what documenta was trying to do – it was trying to displace itself from the seat of power effectively.
It moved itself from Kassel to Athens, but that act was seen as a colonial act because we were not invited there and we could only set up our own structure within it. Our approach from education was to say, “Okay, we can’t build up new structures within these sites. We have to work with existing structures because we are an entity and a body that will be there for a period of time and there will be an end to this project.” It’s not a sustainable project. Some people try to think through this by saying, “Let’s not think about this as these two years, let’s think about 10 years.” But actually, to be realistic, the only thing we are left with is our bodies – our shared language or our voices. We tried to then think about listening, we tried to think about the gesture of the body, and our bodies as a site of learning. What might remain after documenta might not be something physical, it might be that relationship; it might be questions; it might be the possibility of thinking of something in a new way. It was not to build something new, it was to build upon what was existing, and to maybe find the potential for new forms of social relations with each other.
JM: How did audiences respond to assembling together at Peppermint to do collective research?
SA: Clare already mentioned that Lucius and Annemarie Burckhardt were sociologists. And they had these really wonderful titles for their books, mostly written by Lucius, but we think there was a lot of input from Annemarie as well. One of their questions was about who was planning the planning. In the work of Lucius Burckhardt, they would go out of the realm of the classroom. When I say “out of the realm of the classroom,” I also think he went out of the sphere of how you should conduct a university course. So, the first day they would celebrate the graduation, and then he would be like “Okay, let’s get to work.” In that process, the students were also encouraged to be active in their education. It’s not about receiving a certificate: it’s about a process, a transformation that you participate in.
This kind of comes back to what you were saying, Brian. What’s happening in the UK with education. Because it’s become this monetized thing, there is this expectation and relationship to education, which is that you want to get your money’s worth. I don’t think that notion of the university was there at all in the time that the Burckhardts were working. This idea of celebrating the graduation already, and also eliminating the thinking about planning as just drafting plans and maps. It was much more about embodying the city, and actually feeling, and developing a sense about what needs to be planned and how it should be planned on a human-scale. That’s why I’m saying that the library is not necessarily about what’s contained inside books and just the relationships between them. Clare mentioned that, of course, those books are an embodiment of life, of something outside of themselves. I quite like the idea that somehow from these books we go back outside again, back out into a social relationship, and that they can activate or drive something to happen.
BM: Another way to think of Pollyanna Library is as an office for planning, where artists imagine civic processes to transform existing ones. I think what you brought up, Sepake, that registered for me, is how the public values of universities today have seen the hollowing out of the older liberal notions of art and education as “ends in themselves.” It’s undoubtedly part of the capitalist project. Not that we necessarily need to resurrect the university as a self-fulfilling end, but there’s an opportunity for us to argue for a different public value associated with education. 221A is a registered arts educational charity. If you look into the details of our charity laws, we’re actually expected to be anesthetized of direct political activity or taxable market activity. We’re not allowed to simply offer resources to someone unless they are defined as a student or they are performing a service for public benefit. So, that brings up some questions about how kinship would operate within a charitable economy. It’s sort of seen as a private act, of unfair market access even, maybe scrutinized as a social club, that is until we settle with the accepted role of participants as “students” or if they produce something where the public is the ultimate beneficiary. I can’t help but be romantic about a state paternalism that afforded the civil liberties of education, imagining Germany at a turning point where people were living in utopian terms and having the time to study the science of walking. Do we use this strategic history of humanities as a way to bring back these kinds of spaces? Or do we find a new way to work?
SA: In relation to reading, because I’ve been looking a little bit into the history of reading. As an artist, I have to ask the question, what constitutes a service? That’s one thing that came to mind. What I like about art is that it doesn’t necessarily fulfill a service.
JM: I think it goes back to us planning our future, and the ultimate purpose of 221A is to contribute to strengthening and deepening the cultural actors in Vancouver, where development and displacement is rife. 221A might go through varying phases of relevance, but ultimately the mission is to keep things going as an open system and as a loose structure, so that artists can be involved in planning, resourcing and developing infrastructures that can benefit them and then pass these things onto future generations for their needs.
SA: I also just thought of this. Books are a lifeblood. They act as individual fossils that can be mined after the event. They form this body or shape of ideas. It’s a tidy form because it’s portable – you can take it around with you – but it can also sit on a shelf with other things and look pretty in your home, make you look knowledgeable. I fight against the idea of them becoming obsolete in the same way that the Burckhardts introduced walking at the point when Kassel was becoming a car city. I feel that there are similarities there. I see creating a library as a form of protest, at a moment when there’s a digital move. The act of reading, the act of coming together – which it feels like we are drifting away from, but we’re social beings, we’re social bodies. We’ll always have the need to express ourselves.
Jesse McKee is a curator and writer in Vancouver, where he works as Head of Strategy at 221A. Previously he was the Curator of Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery and a curatorial resident with tranzit, Romania and Things that can happen, Hong Kong.
Brian McBay is a co-founder and the Director of 221A, a non-profit organization that works with artists to research and develop, social, cultural and ecological infrastructure.
Sepake Angiama is a Research fellow at bak (basis voor actuele Kunst). Through her research, Her Imaginary, she is addressing science fiction, intersectional feminism and architecture. She is a co-founder of para-instituut and previously she was the Head of aneducation for documenta 14.
Clare Butcher was a member of aneducation for documenta 14. She is a cook and is thinking about how to para-instituut.