It’s actually been going on for about two years, but like many visitors to the Artists Space gallery prior to May 2012, you may not have noticed the bookshop project. Now that it’s been placed right inside the entrance of the organization’s new event space at 55 Walker Street in Tribeca, it’s impossible to miss the lengths of shelving that line the walls around you.
The concept is simple: Artists Space has asked numerous artists to suggest up to 10 titles to be included in the shop. There is no limit on subject matter, whether or not a book is still in print or whether it has any direct relationship with the artist’s work. Among the titles I even noticed a couple of DVDs. The curators currently have the suggestions of 75 artists in stock and by the end of the year hope to have reached 100.
When it was located in the Artists Space gallery, on the third floor at 38 Greene Street, the shop consisted of a couple of bookshelves next to an office. But at 55 Walker Street, the books have room to spread through a large foyer-like area that encloses a narrow space in front of the large screening and discussion area at the back.
For inveterate book browsers, this is a perfect place to spend an hour or two. In today’s world of highly ordered and regimented big-box bookstores pushing out the small and often chaotically shelved used bookshops, there’s little opportunity for a true browser to get her fix. The real pleasure of going to a great small bookshop is not getting exactly what you came for and leaving, but meandering and happening across a book you’ve never heard of by an author completely unknown to you that evokes an image or idea or feeling you’ve had lying dormant somewhere in your brain for some time without even realizing it until the title or the smell or the spine of that volume called attention to it.
But more important than the joy of casual and undetermined consumption is the way in which simply gazing at the variety of titles on display indicates an important and deeper truth about creativity and inspiration. Recently I was reading Sarah Schulman’s new book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, and in a section on the central problems with MFA programs, she gets to the heart of what makes the Artists Space bookshop project so interesting:
Students in an MFA program often are exposed to the same ideas and artworks as their classmates. They don’t stumble through the world accruing eclectic influences, based on their own aesthetic interests, impulses, and chance. They lose the opportunity to fight to be influenced, to check out weird things and trail after unusual people. This creates homogeneity.
The artists offering titles at Artists Space range from well-known stars to relatively new kids on the scene. You can see a complete list of those included online, and by clicking on a name, you can see images of the titles the artist suggested. But the titles in the actual space are displayed with no other ordering system than the author’s last name, regardless of subject matter or who decided to put them there. This provides a wonderful and rich glimpse of the way a healthy curiosity ranges across time and discipline. Some of the books are certainly concerned with aesthetics and might appear on any contemporary art school curriculum, but the majority are not tied up in critical arguments or theories specifically related to the arts. Not all the books are in English, either. There are novels, books of poetry, psychoanalytic texts (specifically psychoanalysis, as in Freud and Jung, and the ramifications of their ideas on culture; less evidence-based psychology or psychiatry), a lot of works confronting or grappling with sexuality, as well as titles covering science, pseudo-science, journalism and a fair share of work articulating aggressive political viewpoints and ideas.
Given Schulman and many other people’s concerns about the homogenization created by institutional art curricula, this project seems to represent a kind of imaginary campus bookstore for an alternative, artist-driven schooling. It’s not so much that these books are being suggested as a canon for a new set of courses built around the work and ideas of the artists represented, but rather, the bookshop is a prompt for all artists to pursue their own far-reaching intellect wherever it may take them, outside the bounds of institutions. Which may seem like an obvious point, but given the assumption held by much of today’s arts sector that an MFA somehow serves as a job requirement for artists, it’s worth paying attention to any reminder that there are plenty of us who don’t have MFAs, and that many generations of American artists (some included in this project) have made great work in careers completely devoid of institutional arts training.
The woman I spoke with the day I stopped in told me that there’s been a surprising lack of repetition in suggested titles, once again reinforcing the simple truth that inspiration can and should come from anywhere and ought never to be limited to a list that someone hands you in school or a gallery.
The project also seems to evoke some of the alternative education and exchange platforms that have been popping up more and more in the past few years, such as Trade School and Our Goods, or more arts-focused initiatives like Anton Vidokle’s Night School project at the New Museum, the Queer Art Mentorship program or even Schulman’s own Satellite Academy, in which she runs workshops for and with other artists, outside of any institutional context.
The one drawback to the Artists Space bookshop is that for true browsers the bookshelves are set too high, and there aren’t good ladders or step stools around to help you climb up to read the titles. So the volumes well beyond most people’s reach and squinting distance are unfortunately hard to access. Also, because the collection is already starting to exceed the shelf space, the books are jammed in quite tight, making it difficult to pull out the volumes without inviting problems. All of which can make it feel like they’re treating the books too much like art objects instead of texts to be handled and mangled and cut up and rejected and read and reread many times over again. Despite these problems, which can be easily remedied, it’s well worth stopping in to trail after your own and others’ unpredictable, uncategorized and unregulated impulses.
The Artists Space Bookstore (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.