A first glimpse of Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain's Untitled (1996) at the San Francisco Main Public Library might leave a person wondering what exactly one is looking at and where to begin. Is it the sheer size of the mural, spanning three floors of the building's South East corner, that distracts from its singularity as a conceptual project and art object? Is it the unimposing colors and shades that refuse to lure in a viewer? Or is it simply the fact that few could anticipate an art installation of such massive proportions to accompany their casual browsing?
The best answer might be that many, as I've found with many library patrons, friends, and myself, simply do not notice the small description to the far right of the piece on each floor. The lucky ones who do discover this cue, or who happened to be paying attention at the library's Larkin Street opening in 1996, find that the piece was created by Hamilton, Chamberlain, and 200 local individuals to mark the library's transition from card catalogue to digital database. They also find that the handwritten text on each card is an excerpt from the book referenced on the card or from another book associated with the one referenced. At this distance, Untitled appears as a fusion of 50,000 catalogue cards and their typewritten text, handwritten ink pointing to endlessly expansive textual references, artisan plaster (the milky, ghostly glaze coating the cards), and collaborative effort.
After realizing Untitled is art made by professional artists, it is easier to view the work from, well, an art perspective. Here obvious comparisons can be made between this work and that of the Minimalists (specifically Agnes Martin), as well as the community concerns and participatory techniques of what is now called Social Practice. The piece is also very much "of" the life-projects of both artists. Hamilton is widely known for her large-scale installations exploring text, textile, and the body. Chamberlain, who passed away in 2008, was a celebrated leader of community-reverent and community-produced public art installations in the Bay Area. As for the 200-plus other artists who contributed, information on them is nowhere to be found on the wall description or in the Library's Untitled archive (though it is well known that Margaret Kilgallen played a major role in the production of the piece -- see this episode of Gallery Crawl for more information -- the Editor.) -- a great shame, and perhaps the piece's only, or loudest, disappointment. It is important to note, though, that each participating handwriter was paid $1.00 per card.
And there is much to be praised here. Untitled works on a variety of registers, tapping into spatial reading, poetry, remix culture, the city's diverse languages and communities, and viewer participation. In response to Hamilton and Chamberlain's prompt to cull text from the book referenced on the catalogue card at hand or another book associated with the one referenced, contributors went wild. Some participants interpreted "association" in conceptually playful ways, uniting in name-rhyme the texts of Norma Farber and Raymond Carver or accompanying a Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall sound recording a with a text in Braille. Some "improved" referenced texts by printing, for example, "Shakespeare drew on well over 24,000 words/ We get along on as few as 850 words" across a card for The Shakespeare Companion. Some abandoned alphabetical text altogether, opting, for drawings of Babar the Elephant on Babar book cards (and there are plenty) or a diagram of El Experimento de Rutherford on a Spanish science book card. With 50,000 cards containing over 200 handwriting styles and a dozen languages, the varieties and repetitions abound.
The result is a living monument not only to the obsolete card catalogue, but also to the lasting technologies of alphabets and handwriting. The immediate, material concern of Untitled was the shifting "high" technologies, but now, 16 years since the piece was completed and decades into the techno-cultural struggle between print and digital culture, the concerns of the piece seem more in line with the "low," or organic. Only after an extended, closer look at Untitled does a person notice the idiosyncratic marks of specific individuals -- their nerves scrawled across the cards. A close look at the handwritten mark connects the viewer with the moment, the present, of writing. A presence so close you can touch it.
Untitled (1996) is on view daily on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors of the San Francisco Main Public Library. More information on Ann Chamberlian and Ann Hamilton can be found in their KQED Spark profiles.