Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.


LS: Given the ongoing reckoning around equity and representation in the arts, how are you approaching representation in the collection?

KG: We know network-based approaches often reinforce existing disparities, so it’s important to me to take that into personal account when I consider our curatorial impulses, and to continually question my own frame of reference. By encouraging artists who are unknown to us to show us their work, we want to challenge the ways in which our own privileged worldviews might leave us removed from the concerns of underrepresented artists.

TH: We have thought about it and continue to. Part of the reason that we had such a great breadth of response is that we didn’t ask specifically for work from particular genres or media. Our artists aren’t all printmakers or all young; there are poets and writers in there, which also strengthens our approach. I also like the idea of artists coming to our attention that we don’t know, and wouldn’t have otherwise, through the project.

KG: Yes, the breadth of genres that function within this form gives us more latitude to practice curatorial discretion. We want to prioritize a balanced collection across disciplines that currently overrepresent white artists.

A handful of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Did you pre-plan the genres that organize the website, or did you come up with categories once you began receiving the books?

TH: We had an idea of standard categories for both genre and media that artists could choose from when submitting their works. We did do some editorial work in making suggestions to artists about assignments we felt were more appropriate. 

One thing I like about the project is that it’s stealthy. The format is simple and self-contained, and it still gives me a thrill, even though I’ve been making books for a long time. 

That’s all we needed to do this work. It wasn’t about artists’ books. It’s about the power of the medium, not about the medium itself. That’s why I’m less affiliated with writing that discusses what artists’ books are; whatever you’re feeling when you’re doing it is more interesting to me than some of the discussions about it. But I think it is really stealthy that QPL is introducing a bunch of people to book arts.

KG: There’s a double-edged sword for a book artist, where in order to make a living from your work, you often have to sell that work at a price that undermines the ethos of producing an artists’ book. I think most artists working this way have reservations about the fact that their books are sold to institutions for three and four figures. It seems like they would really ideally like their work to circulate, but the economic circumstances are limiting. One thing I like about our project is that it promotes a consideration of artists’ books from a perspective that prioritizes distribution.

Looking forward, I love the idea of inviting artists whose work is usually inaccessible and coveted, as a way of creating an opportunity to collect among those who don’t usually get to own art. When you print something out from this collection, you have ownership of that work. You’re really getting to handle somebody’s work, and it requires you to be complete.

Cover and interior view of First the Others, Now You by Patrick Johnson. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: As you move forward and add new books, are there any gaps in the collection that you have identified and hope to fill? Or are you still exploring and seeing where it goes?

TH: I would love to invite someone who does children’s books. If someone who already does them was interested in the format, it would be really quite a sweet gift. 

KG: I’d love to see research enter the collection—non-fiction that is well-sourced and considered, but available in a way that’s more easily understood. And I think we can use more poetry.

TH: I agree. I love the example of David shields’ book, Measuring the manufacturer’s stamps produced by Hamilton Mfg Co c1910 – c1950, which is this kind of oddball little thing, but will be darn useful as a reference tool for a bunch of people. I have had the pleasure of working with David. The form can hold a lot. We certainly haven’t exhausted it. 

KG: H.R. Buechler’s book, Granular Luminosity, is one that responds to the form foremost as an image field, although it can also be understood as a codex.

TH: Pati Scobey considered that with her book, o. It’s beautiful as an image, and she’s inviting people to color it, but she put a lot of work into making sure the drawing would resolve itself in a pagination format. More of that would be cool.

Open view of Granular Luminosity by H.R. Buechler. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: It’s very difficult to succinctly evoke the spirit of an artists’ book — are you two writing the descriptions on your site or are they provided by the artists?

TH: We asked the artists for a blurb and gave an example to help, because we needed something succinct. In a few cases, we edited or wrote them.

KG: We built the site as artists were working on their books, and shared its password so contributors could see it evolving in real time. As part of this, we had dummy content in place, like books with invented names by famous artists. One placeholder was reportedly by van Gogh, so the blurb said something like, “A tortured artist and his easel in France.” That was another way of demonstrating the spirit we wanted to capture.

I tend to give dry, straightforward answers in those instances. I loved that some artists used the opportunity to say something that was true, but maybe in a way that was more oblique or emotionally resonant.

Front and back covers of o by Pati Scobey. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Tell me about EveryoneOn and why you decided to have a philanthropic angle to the project. 

KG: We knew it was a privilege to work on this project. In making the effort to attract an audience, there was an opportunity to use that attention to underscore more urgent needs. QPL depends on access to digital communication, which highlighted how important it felt to advocate for digital equity—especially because so many students are without internet access right now, and require it to use tools that are crucial to their education and sense of well-being. EveryoneOn brought all of those pieces together.

LS: If you want to brag about how much money you raised so far, feel free to report on the fundraising.

KG: The project launched four days ago, and we have raised $535.* Moving forward, as we potentially see users returning to the site over time, we hope our audience will be suggestible to making donations they may not have yet.

[*QPL had raised $1,000 for EveryoneOn by August 5th.]

LS: That’s incredible! Especially for a new project. Congratulations.

KG: We were both surprised by the metrics. We had visitors from 22 different countries on the first day of the project. It was fun to see the Forbes article get picked up by Latest Nigerian News and Samachar in India. It’s so exciting to imagine people in different countries all making the same book at the same time.

The QPL donation page, which directs proceeds to EveryoneOn. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Opportunities to have a book in an exhibition or collection on another continent would normally be rare. This is a great way for physical copies of books to proliferate further than they could otherwise.

KG: Yes, and that would certainly be another gap in the collection: international works and works that aren’t in English.

TH: That’s one reason I regret that not every artist put their name on their book. I wish that it wasn’t quite so anonymous—It’s something to think about as we go on.

KG: The possibility that you could come upon a book and not know how to find out more about it is disappointing. When the first works started to roll in, Tracy also mentioned that we might have put an imprint on the books.

TH: That’s partly why I’m interested in this cataloging question from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Those standard questions in cataloging are hard to deviate from, which makes it challenging when certain things don’t fit. Will Amelia put down QPL as the publisher? That’s a question. The city of origin is another standard notation in a catalog record. Another approach was shared by Lyn Korenic, the director of the Kohler Art Library, who told me she would catalog the URL for their artists book collection.

Double page spread of Book of Random Tables by Amze Emmons. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: I’m interested in whether the Quarantine Public Library is a meta project, a publication in and of itself. Born-digital artists’ books are overlooked, and haven’t always fared well in an institutional setting. I wonder if it will be collected digitally in addition to the hard copies.

KG: There are so many projects that are born physically and then cataloged digitally—it’s odd to think about this project working in the opposite direction. It’s a point of frustration for me, and a sort of an inescapable problem for web designers in general, that this thing that you make will eventually no longer be supported. (There have been times that I wanted to see a digital artist’s book, but could only see thumbnail images of it in Johanna Drucker’s book.) We are coming up against that same question now as we think about how to future-proof the website. What type of developmental considerations have to be taken into account? 

TH: It’s interesting as a preservation question because the project is ephemeral, in the sense that it came out of this really specific time and the response to it. That underscores it so much. But in the long term, the idea of a digital place that supports books that can be downloaded and assembled—that is a preservation question. I have training in preservation, so I’m always interested in that.

LS: Especially with a website. For example, you were describing the fictional placeholder books you had added to the website, which maybe affected the outcome of the contributions — will that be documented? Are you preserving what goes on behind the scenes?

TH: We do have some screenshots because, as I said, I want to see this again. There were some really beautiful mockups of early pages, but I don’t know if we have them all.

KG: There are some. The challenge of digital preservation is that it has so far relied upon static media to capture these forms, but building a website is much more fluid than what that can account for. It’s difficult to document in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible.

An early version of the project’s website. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Do you want the Quarantine Public Library to persist for as long as possible? How far into the future do you plan to add to it or support it?

TH: It depends on our time and abilities to keep doing the project the way we have, and figuring out at each stage how to do the next steps. We are committed to growing through the end of the year. I’ve been thinking about listservs that have been really important to me, on book arts and letterpress history; sometimes they have to shop around for an institutional home. They seem so old fashioned, but they’re hella permanent compared to other things. I really don’t know the answer to the question, but I would be interested in thinking about an institutional home. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know. 

KG: I’d say it depends not just on how we feel, but on what the response is and continues to be.

LS: Is there anything that you want to ask one another while we’re all on Zoom together?

TH: I look forward to talking with Katie in the coming weeks about some of the things that came up here, especially the preservation questions. We’ve had a pretty close view for a while. We aren’t exhausted by it by any means; it’s still very stimulating and exciting, but I don’t feel right now that I have had enough time to zoom out. I am excited to consider what will emerge from that. I think of the project and the work we’ve done as being for us, with benefits for other people. And I feel perfectly happy about that. If it is a model for people to think, Things are all fucked up, and I don’t know what to do, and I feel despair, and they see QPL and think, That’s really cool. I could do something like that — that would make me very happy.

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