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“The Most Dangerous Game”

Guy Debord at the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, France, 1955. From “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
September 27–December 10
Curated by Wolfgang Scheppe with Roberto Ohrt and Eleonora Sovrani

LIBRARIES ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES. An early sign of their looming obsolescence was their museumification during the 1960s in the assorted reading rooms of Conceptual art. Since then, the library has become an art medium in its own right, from Andrea Fraser’s insubordinate Information Room, 1998—for which the books of the Kunsthalle Bern were reshelved with their spines to the wall—to Clegg & Guttman’s reclamation of the literary public sphere in Open Public Library, 1991, a neighborhood installation of free, open-air community bookshelves. More recently, Alfredo Jaar’s Marx Lounge, 2010, presented contemporary rereadings of Marx’s ideas in response to the financial crisis, and the touring exhibition “The Martha Rosler Library” reconsidered the Benjaminian figure of the book collector.

A more interesting library-as-exhibition was presented this spring at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. With its extensive bibliographic display, the excellent “Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930,” curated by Anselm Franke and Tom Holert, mapped the multiple foundational crises of modernity from the 1920s through the 1940s. The show functioned as a Warburgian memory atlas; even the gallery handout, consisting of an annotated bibliography, provided enough material for a myriad of enterprising dissertations, if not a colossal Borgesian scriptorium. But with the books locked in vitrines, this presentation did not resolve the evident question of how to activate a reading collection within a gallery. This challenge will need to be revisited in HKW’s next show in this vein, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which will revive an unrealized project of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s, La Bibliothèque situationniste de Silkeborg, which was first formulated in 1960 as a “yardstick of the cultural avant-garde.” Designed to attract “specialists” from across the globe, La Bibliothèque might be more aptly described as a center of acculturation, suggesting that all avant-garde routes lead to Silkeborg, the provincial Danish town where Jorn spent his youth and to which he would eventually bequeath his archive, including a vast library containing books with dense notes scribbled on nearly every page. It’s an odd proposal—who would have thought the avant-garde was in the business of library science?—though of course the printing and selling of publications was always part of its program.

Unspecified in Debord’s prospectus was what physical shape this library should take. What would the life of a book have been, one wonders, in Constant’s sprawling New Babylon, 1956–74, with its endlessly shifting labyrinthine structure? Nearly sixty years later, the library is calling for new answers.

Eric C. H. de Bruyn