Seat #12 in the Library
This short essay approaches the acquisition of Jenny Brockmann’s artwork Seat #12 by the Goethe-Institut London. Not simply a sculptural object, but rather an intention for creating a space for research-sharing through discursive multi-disciplinary events, Seat #12 is a proposal for participatory learning, and as such, we can ask what such a purchase might mean for the Goethe-Institut’s library where it will be housed. What conditions make such an acquisition possible? How can such a work of art be both responsive to, and create changes from within?
By Rose Lejeune
Comprised of aluminium, wood, steel and artificial leather, Seat #12 is an artwork that at its most simple creates seating for twelve people in the round. To create this seating, twelve arms, each with a seat at the end, stem out from a central core; meaning that the work somehow simultaneously brings to mind the sci-fi seating from the interior of a spaceship, a child’s drawing of a flower and a circular conference table layout.
Seat #12 invites twelve participants to sit facing one another. It is not, though, simply a piece of design - rather it is in the very sitting on Seat #12 that we begin our journey into the artist’s conceptual space and the work’s potential. The construction touches the floor in only one central spot, meaning that the arms create a kind of see-saw whereby any person sitting down requires a counterpart to balance out their weight. For the group as a whole this means that the more people who wish to sit down, the clearer the understanding needs to be on when and how each one sits. The weight needs to be distributed as evenly as possible so people may have to move to accommodate others, or some places left empty to maintain the state of equilibrium. Once seated, every movement, even the very smallest, made by one of those seated has a direct effect on the sitting position of all the others. As such, both the acts of sitting down and of leaving require negotiation and the acknowledgement of how one’s own movements affect all of those around.
DISCURSIVE PERFORMANCES, or: Where Do We Sit From Here?Central to Seat #12 is not only how the sitters come to be seated but what happens when they do. As with other projects created by Brockmann, Seat #12 is a physical structure that the artist envisions as enabling meetings between experts from different disciplines, her so called Discursive Performances. The focus of such Discursive Performances is the dialogue between scientists, artists and activists, and the interface of these conversations with a broader public; creating awareness and new ways of thinking, and inserting into the artwork the very idea of the experiment itself. There is no formula for the participants of a Discursive Performance, but speakers should be from multiple disciplinary backgrounds and, ideally, trans-cultural. That is, through staged events, the artist creates the setting within which the invited guests from different professional fields and personal backgrounds can consider the expertise of others and offer their own, all set within the literally de-stabilised arrangement. This, by definition, is an experiment; a production process with an uncertain or open outcome. The round seating structure, an obvious nod to the disintegration of hierarchy between participants, creates the setting for such disruptions through the balancing act that must literally evolve between those seated, but absolutely leaves the unfolding of the event open.
The desire for equilibrium is not merely physical then, but meant to engender an emotional, intellectual, and communal connection for the time the group is seated. For Brockmann, it is through the shifting physical space, this instability, that a particular kind of conversation can be initiated.
Research in the world of art is a term fraught with complexity – often dismissed or misunderstood – it can be seen to stand in contrast to the rational and methodologically-composed processes of the sciences. Where scientific research takes place in pre-defined rigorous and controlled circumstances, research in the arts can be developed through the free-form story-telling power of the artist. For the composition of her research, Brockmann places empathy and human connection into the meeting space as a method of testing the pre-existing assumptions and biases within both her work work and the disciplines of others.
Within Discursive Performances the research is witnessed and interacted with by the audience in real time – implicating them in its development and outcomes as much as the professionals. Brockmann pushes the term research out of the antiseptic confines of the laboratory and into the tumult of daily life. Her work asks us to understand that learning is a socio-political process; one cannot fully understand the concepts of either science or the arts without experiencing them in flux.
A Place in the LibraryImportantly, the work has been purchased by the Goethe-Institut London to live in its library. Founded in the late 1950s as a reading room, at its peak the library held some 25,000 books, 5,000 reference books and over 100 magazine subscriptions. These formed the backbone to this space’s use for German speakers and researchers of all sorts, but the library has undergone many of the expansions and contractions, shifts in use, that nearly all libraries have experienced in the last decades.
Once, libraries were silent spaces of individual learning; they were the place where information came from, where books with their knowledge were kept, the place where essays were written, books and magazines read, the place where one went to read and write, to study, to look things up - to engage in the joy of discovery, the history of knowledge, the enviable frustration of the Dewey Decimal system. Today they have become more social and perhaps unclear spaces. Yes, still housing books alongside newer multi-media resources and computer stations but no longer the primary resource for many people seeking information. Most obviously, the internet has disrupted the way knowledge is circulated and accessed. Whilst the limitations of this vast new network – information overload and, polarising and flattened out information - are increasingly clear, it is nevertheless understood that the physical repository of the library is no longer necessary for the same reasons it was even twenty years ago. Instead, such spaces take on more social forms of use - meetings, talks and events. The silence of individual learning is replaced by new modes of exchange and translation requiring other more subtle shifts in how knowledge and bodies are cared for, and in how we reformulate and occupy space to create safe environments for research and learning for all.
To understand what ‘the work’ of Seat #12 is then, we must take into account these new interfaces. Instead of the art object announcing itself as a body of defined knowledge, it instead asks how it can become part of the open discourse that facilitates research as an open experiment. How, as an acquisition, it might not only facilitate these new experiential forms of learning, but itself be integral to their development. Thus, we understand that the acquisition of this artwork is not simply the acquisition of its material components to be preserved. Indeed, the work acquired, Seat #12, is both a physical object, a licence for the Goethe-Insitut’s curators to stage live Discursive Performances and create a growing archive of those performances. That is, any understanding of Seat #12 must include the activation of the work both through the staged events of the Discursive Performances and through the implications of such events over time. It is both an art object as sculpture, and more importantly, it is the architecture that creates and remembers the encounter.
The configuration of such an art work as an acquisition for Goethe-Institut asks us to re-formulate the idea of collecting an artwork, from the housing of a static object to a dynamic relation between the intention of the work and its context. It incorporates notions of care in new ways to caring for people, encounters, dynamics and ideas.
A Moving Object, a Collective ExperienceThis is a long way from a static object – a painting or sculpture that must be stored and experienced as an untouchable or sacred object. A long way from visiting a long loved collection painting in a museum, both as the experience of the encounter with the art object as a solitary experience of viewers, and as its value contained in its inherent meaning and unwillingness to change over time; its insistence on being a permanent object, allowing an individual to return time and time again to the same experience. Seat #12 perhaps points to the very fallacy of perceiving an art object in this way and recognises that all works change over time, both as materials degrade, technologies become obsolete, and as changing contexts shift their meaning.
Discursive Performance demands yet another relation – one of ongoing consideration and updating. This includes the curatorial investigation into broad multi-disciplinary event making – the invitations to new professionals require attention. While experiments should be open to risk, there is nevertheless a long thinking process that must go into the makeup of any individual event to create a fruitful dialogue. In forming a community and encouraging communication, the work specifically addresses the fact that there is no one valid truth, and care must therefore be taken in constructing a safe environment for confrontations and revelations.
This is no small shift in the articulation of what an acquisition can be – what needs to be looked after and how its acquisition might shape the space within which it exists, of how the art object might be messy. The work is not simply a material object that needs to be appropriately cared for, stored or conserved. Instead it requires an ongoing negotiation of objects, ideas, space and audience that might have unintended consequences.
Here, the value of collecting Seat #12 lies not in the keeping of it as an individual object but in its ongoing relation to audiences, and in what it can activate – its preservation creates forms of communal knowledge, shared experiences and connections, and the new constellations of knowledge through time.
Rather than a simply a physical architecture, the context of the library is rather the ‘why’ and the ‘for whom’, the ‘unknowable’, indeed the desire to create unpredictability within the physical context. From this emerges a new idea of the collection as the site and source of entanglements which is iterative; it grows, and generates.
Such a complication of the collected object responds both to the crisis of the collection and the library space by expanding their potential – creating a rupture from the singularity of the voice of the academic, the scientist or the artist, and moving towards multiplicities and the framing of knowledge and truth within new paradigms. Just as with a reference book, the art object contains within its symbols knowledge that can be imparted – wisdom to be received - imbued with new meaning over time certainly but nevertheless fixed as art.
There is a temptation here to conclude with an offering of how Seat #12 will transform the Goethe-Institut’s library – but change can seem slow, progress uneven and unpredictable, and this is precisely how we must see any potential impact of a messy object such as Seat #12. Certainly, with each strand woven around the other, it is not possible or even desirable to untangle the ways in which sculpture, event, research and community collide and impact one another. Rather through each event, each meeting and the daily use of the sculpture, there is a transformative potential that lies in our incremental re-learning of how we receive, learn and process information, what the public spaces are for, what a work of art ‘does’. The model of Seat #12 is therefore in this potential, in the pleasure of not knowing. It is in the notion of embedding the taking care of humans as communicators, as creators and shapers of knowledge and truth-seeker into the space.