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.
The Dynamic Library is an edited collection of essays orbiting the incredible Art Library of the Sitterwerk in St. Gallen Switzerland. A collection of 25,000 volumes and an extensive materials archive, the library and this volume express the intensely networked structure of information as contained and disseminated through a library. The essays range in topics from explorations of the organization of knowledge, through historiographic and bibliographic approaches to art history, to the technological and design underpinnings of the library’s unique and evolving cataloguing system. That system, fully integrated into the library’s architectural scheme, incorporates robotic scanners, RFID tagged books, RFID reading-tables, and an associative mapping apparatus to produce a unique spatial, epistemological, and social experience. —David Hecht
Anne-Sophie Springer and Étienne Turpin’s Fantasies of the Library is an exhibition-in-a-book exploring the library as a social, intellectual and aesthetic form. The centerpiece is a wide-ranging visual essay, “Reading Rooms, Reading Machines” which traces the spatial and systemic imaginaries of reading, from Renaissance-era book wheels to a conceptual “future library” comprised of newly planted trees. —Sarah Hamerman
The Artist as Instigator is a reissue of a 1973 text by British artist Stephen Willats, whose work uses cybernetics as a modeling tool to refigure the relationship between art, audiences, and the broader social environment. The book highlights several of Willats’ key projects and writings from the era, including statements on art and cybernetics from his magazine, Control, and the West London Social Resource Project, which invited Londoners from four distinct communities to respond to their social environment through a series of surveys, booklets, and resource boards displaying their responses. Willats’ thinking around networks and self-organizing systems is both rigorous and generous, and feels as relevant to today’s problems as it does to its original context. —Sarah Hamerman
Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (1968) was published as a special issue of Studio International and edited by Jasia Reichardt, curator of the homonymously titled exhibition, held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. In addition to photographs and detailed works descriptions, the issue features supporting texts and imagery by Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Gordon Pask, Kenneth Knowlton, and many others. Artists, researchers, and institutional partners share pages that detail some of the earliest digital artworks: poetry, music, and dance practices that had just begun to experiment with how art might engage the computer as material, tool, and collaborator. —Sam Hart
Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art by Zabet Patterson gives an erudite introduction to the emergence of computer art. In this recent title, which is part of the technologically-oriented Platform Series by the MIT Press, Patterson examines the S-C 4020, a device that allowed mainframe computers to “present and preserve images.” The book provides an overview of artists and the technologies that they used at the Bell Labs research facility in the 1960s. Patterson’s book is a necessary addition to discourses on computational aesthetics, digital art, and media archaeology. —Charles Eppley
How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand (1994) explores and documents the ways in which buildings and society co-evolve in a cybernetic feedback loop over time. For Brand, buildings are far from static objects; they exist as dynamic, evolving systems, growing and transforming over decades and centuries: “First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again–ad infinitum.” Illustrated with many series of photographs documenting the change of a building over generations, Brand’s perspective on architecture is insightful specifically because he examines the built environment through an ecological or evolutionary perspective, not as an architect or an architectural historian. Part of Brand’s project is to remind us that, both metaphorically and literally, foundations, structures, and supports are constant works-in-progress. —Dan Taeyoung
The Evolving Society: First Annual Conference on the Cybercultural Revolution: Cybernetics and Automation was selected for the library particularly because the essay "The Negro and Cybenation" by James Boggs was published as part of the conference proceedings. Boggs’ text reveals how automatization disproportionately affected black communities, written from his perspective as an auto worker and activist in Detroit prior to the 1960s civil rights movement. —Charles Eppley
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