The Cybernetics Conference, held November 15th-18th at Prime Produce in NYC, brought together scholars, artists, and activists to examine the way information systems shape social organization and agency. It featured a browsing library of over 600 titles in conjunction with the conference program, including donations from Reanimation Library, Wendy’s Subway, Monoskop, and Res.
The majority of the collection was provided by David Isaac Hecht, along with contributions by Sam Hart, Sarah Hamerman, Charles Eppley, Alexis Convento, and Melanie Hoff. The selections emphasize the transdisciplinary nature of cybernetics, bringing together texts from media theory, cognitive science, and architecture side-by-side with artists’ publications and technical literature.
The library remains installed at Prime Produce, and available to visitors by appointment. Using QR codes, library visitors can ‘check in’ books to a digital simulation built by Francis Tseng and Dan Taeyoung. CyberSym connects the Cybernetics Library to a virtual world represented by interacting planetary bodies. When a participant checks-in a library book, a selection of topics contained within that text are registered in the simulation, propagating through three “celestial” planes. The thematic features extracted from each library text allow CyberSym to build a semantic model of each participant’s check-in history, a world of ideas contained within their own collection. Similar planets would then attract, producing the collective behavior of the CyberSym galaxy’s particle simulation.
The Cybernetics Library is intended to function as a central node in a cybernetic system, generating feedback through the interaction between publications, readers, and the simulation. The project highlights how libraries function as networked systems, drawing upon complex infrastructures that integrate physical publications, digital information, and ephemeral social interactions. Like the vibrant international mail art movement of the 1960s-1980s, libraries envision “networking” as a community-driven, rather than technocratic, practice. Coordinating a library that can also be viewed as a kind of artwork brings the “information work” of librarianship into broader dialogue with other kinds of cultural work across the art, design and technology spectrum.
The physical space and design of the library are themselves reflective of this systematic engagement; the library seeks to operate as a dynamic environment for the discovery and sharing of knowledge. As a highly modular system, the shelves, display stands, seating, and work surfaces of the library are highly configurable and responsive to patterns of use, but also operate to facilitate social modes of interaction. The stacked cubes and blocks might unconsciously recall SEEK, the centerpiece of the pivotal Jewish Museum Software exhibition of 1970. A product of the MIT Architecture Machine Group (the precursor of today’s Media Lab), SEEK comprised an enclosure housing a large set of stacked metal blocks, a colony of gerbils, and a computer vision/robotic arm system, looming above. While the apparatus was meant to simulate the challenge of using computers to respond to unexpected conditions and finding ways to optimize outcomes, the Cybernetics Library instead strives to encourage the serendipitous.
Initially conceived as a zoned space addressing varying levels of care required by certain materials, as well as the rarity and topicality of certain works, the organization of objects within the library encouraged different types of engagement around the space. An outer perimeter of shelves, the main containers for the publications, served as a boundary between the library and the rest of the conference. Librarians were given a desk within this perimeter from which they could monitor the collection, serve as a gateway and mediator between the library and the conference, and offer assistance to patrons as they browsed the collection and interacted with the simulation. Within this perimeter, a central island of display stands and shelves highlighted certain rare and interesting items from the collection, along with the special collections loaned from Reanimation Library and Wendy’s Subway. These blocks, constructed specially for the conference, along with various seating elements and surfaces, would be shifted gently by the users of the library, and would thus find new configurations that were facilitated by the librarians. Thus, the shape of the library was an evolving feature that reflected a trace of activity, while becoming constantly new.
In an even more performative capacity, the librarians were also responsible for the flow of books out from the library and into the space of the conference itself, with books placed on shelves behind speakers, and a rotating cast of curated selections being distributed between a pair of tables behind the audience. These books became a mobile branch of the main library, and encouraged more engagement (and check-ins) with works connected to each talk. Some of the works were selected by the speakers themselves, producing another potential feedback loop as those books were checked in to the simulation, reconfiguring the conference-goers and potentially the speakers as well.
Throughout the curation and production process several texts recurred as key points of reference, shaping how the conference came together. Members of the Cybernetics Conference team were asked to share their thoughts on some of these titles.
Recordings from the conference can be found on the Cybernetics Conference website. And the Library catalog at is available at: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/CyberneticsCon