13. Sorted Books – Nina Katchadourian | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

[MUSIC PLAYING] Today we’re meeting with
Brooklyn-based artist Nina Katchadourian. But as you can tell,
this is not Brooklyn. We’ve met her here in
Lawrence, Kansas where she’s working on a new project. Nina’s works address
a wide range of ideas, but throughout her career,
she has consistently engaged with the every day. Her series Seat
Assignment makes use of overlooked materials
in her spare time during her plane flights
around the world. The photos range from
surprisingly moving landscapes to bathroom selfies that
could pass for 15th century Flemish portraiture. And for the past
20 years, Nina has been working on a series
called Sorted Books. Working with collections
small and large, she immerses
herself in libraries to select, stack, and
photograph groupings of books so that the titles on their
spines can be read in sequence. What results are concise,
clever visual poems that are often revealing about
the owner of the books. Right now Nina has the
amazing opportunity of accessing the personal
library of American writer William S. Burroughs and we’re
standing outside of the home where he spent the
last years of his life. So let’s go talk to
Nina and see what she’s finding out about
Burrows through his books. Hi, I’m Nina Katchadourian and
this is your art assignment. [MUSIC PLAYING] We are sitting in William
S. Burroughs’ house where he lived for the
last 16 years of his life in Lawrence, Kansas. And given the wild
life that this guy led, it’s really interesting
to me that this house is a very sweet red and white
cottage with a beautiful garden all around it. It’s the most peaceful
place you can imagine. The reason I’m here
is because I was very lucky to be
granted permission to work with William
Burroughs’ books to make a sorted books project. I read William
Burroughs in college a little bit as part of a
Comp Lit class like lots of college students do. And I’m not in any way a kind
of William Burroughs scholar or William Burroughs geek. I have been a little
bit self-conscious about that coming here and
had to make some decisions a while ago about whether I
wanted to go into a huge geek out research effort in
advance of coming here. And decided that since one of
the things about the Sorted Books project is
that you get to know a person through their books,
that there might actually be something interesting
about encountering him as a person who I get to know
primarily through his books and not to kind of overeducate
myself in advance of coming. And that has been a
really interesting part of the last two days. It’s made me think a lot about
were I to drop dead tomorrow, what would people make
of my book collection. You know, I have kind of
an odd library, I think. And maybe there aren’t books
that I’d be so happy for people to know that I owned. I think we all have some guilty
pleasure books in our life. In other words, books that we
really love and we have around, but maybe they don’t sort of
show the public side of us that we’d like
people to always see. So your assignment is to work in
somebody’s library who you know or that you would
like to know better and to make a portrait
of them by making three clusters of books. Each cluster can have as
many different books in it as you want. But you have to think a lot
about the physical qualities of the books and make sure that
your book stack reads clearly. You might want to line
up the titles flush left. And in the end, it should be
a portrait of that person. So as you know
Sarah, I am obsessed with portraits that are not
about physical resemblance. Yeah, like Felix
Gonzalez-Torres’ heartbreaking and
beautiful portrait of his partner Ross
who died of AIDS where he made this pile of
candy that corresponded to Ross’ ideal body weight. Yeah, and then
people are encouraged to take candy from
the museum or gallery, and then it’s
constantly replenished. It’s really beautiful. Oh, it’s just gutting. And there’s also that portrait
of William Carlos Williams, that’s just a big,
all the fives. Oh right, Charles
Demuth’s abstract portrait. I Saw the Figure 5
in Gold from 1928 that relates to Williams’
poem “The Great Figure.” Yeah, it occurs to me there are
a lot of literary connections for this assignment, right? Right, there’s William
Burroughs’ cut-up technique itself. Yeah, There’s also, like,
Gertrude Stein’s word portraits when she had these ways
of describing people that were very non-narrative,
used fragments, made kind of descriptive
essays of people. Right, yeah, true. But there’s something
we’re not getting at here and that’s this sense
of assemblage or montage that’s going on with this work. I’m thinking of artists
like Christian Marclay who collages film and digital
media in similar ways to Nina. His 1995 piece Telephones
pulled together clips of one-sided
phone conversations from movies in a
totally brilliant way. So he was doing mashups before
there were mashups basically. Right. But what we’re homing in
on here is the sorting part of the sorting books activity
that is all about archiving. Archiving is pretty
big these days in art. Is it now? SARAH URIST GREEN
(VOICEOVER): OK. So an archive is a collection of
documents providing information about something, right? Like in this case, we have
William S. Burroughs’ books which give us some
information about him as a writer and a person. Everyone’s favorite comedian
Michel Foucault pointed out that studying archives is
learning about the past through its material remains. The archaeologist of
knowledge, he says, tries to reconstruct
the archive to show how we relate to the past and
construct meaning around it. Contemporary artists
working this way are described by art
historian Hal Foster as having an archival impulse. He sees more and more
artists taking information as a kind of ready made material
inventorying it and reordering it. Like Thomas Hirschhorn. Or remember Deb Sokolow? Whether we’re Tumbling cat
pictures from the 1960s, scrapbooking, or sorting books,
Foster calls this impulse an attempt “to probe
a misplaced past, to collate its different
signs, to ascertain what might remain for the present.” Nina’s project takes the
past and gives it a present. It’s not a portrait
but it is a reminder that archives, while
meaningful, are also incomplete, accidental,
and at times, absurd. I think that the answer to
why do it is really a book cluster itself that I
made many years ago. And I say, what is art? And the answer is
close observation. And I really believe that. I think that what every
artist does in some way is to hone in on
something in the world that they have a strong
attraction to or reaction to and to translate that
somehow in a way that allows them to start a
conversation with an audience member, with a viewer. Could be one viewer,
could be 10,000. It hardly matters. But I think that’s what art is. It’s a communicational
act that kind of lobs out the first
question that can become a kind of conversation. So that’s why I do this. I do this because I
think it’s worth looking more closely at many things. But in this instance, at books
and at our own relationship to them, and at someone
else’s relationship to them. The very first phase
is always a kind of getting to know
you phase where I look at every single
book that’s there. I make long, elaborate
lists of titles that are interesting to
me that might be useful. It’s almost a way for me of
memorizing the collection. And it’s been really
important to do that by physically
writing things down. I have a clipboard,
I have lists. Then there’s a
second phase where I take titles that continuously
kind of jump out at me and transcribe them
onto index cards. And then I spend a lot of
time moving index cards around and seeing what works with what. And the very last
stage is actually moving the books themselves. The system has evolved
partially because it means you don’t have
to put a ton of books back at the end and
display somebody’s library in very drastic ways. One really important part
of the Sorted Books project has always been
that I’m thinking about the books as
physical things, as sculptural objects,
as things that have weight, and size,
and mass, and heft, and wear and tear, and
font sizes, and colors. So I’m always trying to think
of this as sculpture also. And it’s not just
about the information, not just about the writing. This wouldn’t be a
project, for example, that I would ever want
to do by just listing the titles of the books. It’s really important that it be
stuff that’s been moved around. [MUSIC PLAYING] Handgun Reloading Manual
next to Was Mozart Poisoned? And then The Domestic Cat. Which, those are three
pretty great titles. [MUSIC PLAYING]

77 thoughts on “13. Sorted Books – Nina Katchadourian | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. Oh, gosh, I would really like to do this one! I'll have to start asking people if I can access their libraries (and interview them)!

  2. Question for Sarah: How do you choose how to contextualize these assignments? The comparison between the current assignment and art movements/ artists from the past is always so spot on, and probably affects the work of those who submit to TAA.

  3. I'm really excited to do this Art Assignment! Since I'm on a college campus, I hope I can look at the concentrated collections of readers and have fun with their books.

  4. Must it be the library of an individual? You see, I work at a library.
    I also just had an idea: Could this be an interesting way of exhibiting books? (A downside of it is that people might feel that borrowing a book from it may take away from the exhibit.)

  5. Oh man oh man oh man… the smell of old books. As Faber from Fahrenheit 451 said, they smell almost like spices of nutmeg. Even though the odor is usually just mold or mites 🙂

  6. From the people I know only I have an English book collection, I live in Georgia and everyone has Georgian books and it'll be hard to translate the meaning of every title in English so my subscribers/followers can understand.

  7. Reminds me of Hillary Carlip's A le Cart series, where she finds grocery lists and imagines the people who wrote them:            http://www.alacartthebook.com

  8. What I might try and do is create a caricature of different sections of my university library by stacking multiple narratives from several different sections as well as a general stack that encompasses the character of the collection. I think it's interesting what libraries collect, since their contents are reflections of the people who curate them over the years.

  9. if only this assignement was out one month ago, we had clean my grandparent´s intire book colection from their house once they have died some time ago…
    Trough it was really a way to know they better, lots of weird books i never thought they would be interested. I discovered so many books about hypnotism and OFOs!

  10. Oh, I would love to do this with my dad's library (which is 95 percent science fiction so it might be interesting to see how that could relate back to his life)! Why did this assignment have to come up now though? I just moved away and won't be back there for a year… 🙁

  11. Hmm I have a person in mind who's library I want to do. But he only reads e-books lol. I guess it would be pretty hard to stack those.

  12. <to self, under breath>   
    Must not say, "in your pants."   
    Must not say, "in your pants."   
    Must not say, "in your pants."

  13. I Love the art assignment, and the music at the opening and end of the video is just adorable!!! Is there any chance we will be able to download the music at some point? 

  14. One thing that makes this assignment really cool (and wasn't discussed in the video) is that there is a large but finite number of different books in the world and it is probable that some books will appear multiple times within the stacks of books people sort for this assignment. But which ones? That's an interesting question, because it's not all about the popularity of the book. You also have to consider the title, the author (my guess is that John Green might appear more than once – or twice ;)), the size of the book, the design and typography of the book's spine, when it was published, where it was published, the number of copies…

  15. "Everyone's favourite comedian, Michel Foucault". Were you making fun of the fact that Michel Foucault's awfully depressing ? Or did I hear it wrong ?

  16. This is an amazing art assignment! What a great idea. You can also create straight up poetry with very cool fonts-you can be sure the things you would say loudly are big or bold etc!

  17. I really like the art assignment, but it would be nice to have a few of the assignments be from other kinds of artists, not just fine art.
    As an illustrator myself, it's disheartening that when people talk about Art, they usually only discuss the type to be found on traditional museums or modern art galleries – art that is used for distinct purposes is so often looked down upon as not being as deep or meaningful as fine art, despite the fact that ot requires just as much skill, patience and devotion.
    I would love to have a product design assignment that asks you to dedign and make a simple object that you have always wanted, an illustration assignment that encompasses your life thus far in a singal image, a textiles assignment that encourages you to design and sew a quilt made up of all of the hobbies which you partake in.
    I dunno, I just love the practical arts and would love to see more videos about them c:

  18. Just a comment – I found the background music made it difficult to hear what the artist was saying in this video. 

  19. I'm from Germany so I pobably will only find german books (which makes this really clever title thing a bit less cool for anyone who does not speak german)…should I do this Art Assignment anyway?

  20. aw man! I just helped a friend sort through and donate all her books a week ago. if only I had known about this assignment earlier. ):

  21. It would be really interesting to see Sarah and Johns interpretation of the assignments. Maybe get Henry involved too!

  22. So this question doesn't pertain to exactly this video, but at the end of each video who guys give a brief explanation of the assignment and you play this nice little tune & I LOVE IT! lol. What is it?? 🙂

  23. Another one that requires interaction with other people. Noooo. Just kidding. I am determined to complete all of them at some point. Someone somewhere, but not too far, will do the meet in the middle with me. Someday, I'll spend long enough time in public to do the stakeout and maybe just maybe this one can get done too.

  24. Speaking of archives, Mike Rugnetta is right–we really do need a better archive of the Internet, in the hands of scholars, not just companies. Think of the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, whose diary is one of the most important primary sources of his time period:               http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pepys

  25. I'm so excited!  I've actually seen her Flemish bathroom portraits before!  This is the first time I've recognized an Art Assignment artist's work before!  🙂  I also really dig this assignment.

  26. I think this may be the first art assignment that I take part in… although I think I'm going to do a self portrait (I just moved so I have to sort my books anyway, because they are still in boxes) and it's a really appealing project to me

  27. God, some of these sorted book poems are amazing.
    "How we die
    on the brink
    in darkness waiting"

    That is gorgeous!

  28. Christian Marclay was mentioned!  I recently saw part of The Clock, which is a film he made that runs 24 hours, with each minute lining up to a time in various movies all cut together.  It's absolutely fascinating.

  29. Rose and I live in Lawrence! The Burroughs house is really cool. I wish we knew this was going on so we could have met Nina while she was in town! I'll have to talk with her more in depth about her experience with Burroughs's collection. I would be fascinated to hear what she has to say about what she learned. He was such an interesting man, especially when he lived here near the end of his life.

    And Rose and I will definitely be doing this assignment with each other's libraries!

  30. I've finally done my first assignment! I have three other video projects pending that I should edit first, but I'm too excited about my book clusters! Can't wait for you to see them!

  31. i just recently had a thought, you could theoretically use anything with a title on the spine, like CDs or DVDs or even audiobook(of which I have a tonne).

  32. Thank you so much for making these. My three English classes just completed the Fake Flyer and loved it. I can't wait to try this one out with them.

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