PRINT October 2019



Carissa Rodriguez, I’m normal. I have a garden. I’m a person, 2015, dye sublimation print on aluminum, 45 1⁄4 × 35".

The Glen Park Library: A Fairy Tale of Disruption, by Pamela M. Lee. New York and San Francisco: No Place Press, 2019. 112 pages.

IN OUR NEOLIBERAL GILDED AGE, it has become commonplace, even banal, for tech barons and venture capitalists to style themselves “disruptors” and “revolutionaries.” Both designations trade on heroic machismo to repackage corporate greed as the glorious stuff of myth. Flash points and pivots are sexy, after all, and even better when inflated with historic consequence. But culture, too, succumbs to the seductive cast of epoch-making violence; “disruption” is also the modus operandi of the avant-garde.

It’s thus no surprise that the term would have kindled the perverse fascination of an art historian then working in Silicon Valley. Pamela M. Lee’s The Glen Park Library, an extended essay published as a charmingly embossed leatherette-bound book, spins a contemporary allegory out of a news blip from our recent past: the 2013 arrest of Ross Ulbricht, alleged operator of the dark web marketplace known as the Silk Road, in a San Francisco public library. Taking Ulbricht’s online pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts (an allusion to the humble farmhand turned buccaneer from the 1987 adventure-fantasy film The Princess Bride) as a metaphorical catalyst, Lee commingles fact with fiction in ten sections of creative-critical prose. The text ranges in style from diaristic reading log to numerological aphorism to epistolary appropriation (including the author’s own email exchange with a former Glen Park librarian who witnessed Ulbricht’s arrest, as well as Silk Road user messages intercepted by the FBI). In its episodic brevity and rhetorical finesse, Lee’s para-scholarly project—like Molly Nesbit’s 2013 The Pragmatism in the History of Art—puts pressure on the literary etiquette of an often buttoned-down discipline, brushing against the grain of critical detachment.

Contemporary art bubbles up in Lee’s text as visual nodes around which a variety of disconnected themes—vanitas and hackers, the fungibility of money and memes, bots and the uncanny—can condense.

The prime drivers of Lee’s text are not tidy theses but coincidence and paradox. The crypto-crusader Ulbricht, once a small-time bookseller, is captured incognito via a sting op in a public reading room. The adjacent Glen Canyon Park, through which Google’s commuter buses whiz workers daily, was the nineteenth-century home of the first US manufacturer of dynamite, that antediluvian technology of disruption. Lee touches on the work of five women artists—Carissa Rodriguez, Martine Syms, Gretchen Bender, Cécile B. Evans, and Josephine Pryde—in passages that branch off from other topics as free associations. Beyond countervailing the bad-boy ethos of libertarian cypherpunk, the relationship of these asides to the book’s Silk Road story line is sometimes tenuous, an intentional patchwork. If, as Freud would have it, fairy tales are dreamscapes of a cultural unconscious, contemporary art bubbles up in Lee’s text as visual nodes around which a variety of disconnected themes—vanitas and hackers, the fungibility of money and memes, bots and the uncanny—can condense.

Lee’s 2004 academic book, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, tackled the impact of technological change on cultural notions of temporality. In it, she read George Kubler’s The Shape of Time, a 1962 meditation on the discontinuous rhythms of material history, as systems theory by another name. The Glen Park Library tries a similar gambit with our own moment. Lee mobilizes business guru Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), the best seller that popularized the concept of “disruptive innovation” amid the dot-com boom, as a cultural artifact. Christensen’s watershed business text—“as much self-help trade manual and redemption narrative as it is dismal science”—offers her a prognostic timescale for a new millennium: a “fast history” propelled by breakneck cycles of windfall and failure, the corrupted dialectics of boom and bust. Disruption, like cybernetics—an invention of military science—is a philosophy based on managing the future, anticipating new markets yet to emerge. Just as Chronophobia demonstrated how the proleptic time of cybernetics inflected art theory and historiography at the dawn of the information age, The Glen Park Library considers, with a lighter touch, how disruption has now become our culture’s “existentialism, mantra, and cross to bear.”

Six weeks after Ulbricht’s arrest, another black marketeer assumed the avatar Dread Pirate Roberts, proving that the alias could, as it did in The Princess Bride, legitimize multiple masterminds in turn. For Lee, DPR is less a character than a floating signifier demonstrating the “shell game of language” that she sees in both the liquidity of financial capitalism and, with a different valence, the corporeal vernacular of Syms’s video Notes on Gesture, 2015. In the latter, repetition and permutation abstract a black woman’s body language, making its semantics opaque and showing how gestures can be wrested from the body to circulate as images. Lee’s fixation on the slippery simulacra of digital stereotypes and cryptocurrency conjures another historical parallax: Here, postmodernism returns with a vengeance. The preoccupations of 1980s American art—identity politics, appropriation, virtual chains of signification—abound in her tale. Perhaps, then, allegory serves in The Glen Park Library less as subject matter (as it did in Craig Owens’s landmark 1980 writings on the topic) than as critical method: a contingent, even extravagant, confiscation of images, chosen for their cultural currency and woven together in a synthetic tissue of affinity and innuendo. As Owens contended, allegories (or fairy tales) don’t perform a restorative hermeneutics on their source material; instead, they elaborate it in a new web of meaning. 

Kaegan Sparks is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.