Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey: Object lessons at The Serving Library

My class this autumn will be based on, in and around a hybrid institution I co-founded and co-direct. The Serving Library is a two-faced archiving-publishing platorm based on 16 years of having produced a wide-ranging arts journal initially called 'Dot Dot Dot' (since 2000), later rechristened 'Bulletins of The Serving Library' (since 2011). The change of name was designed to position the publication as house journal of a larger ecosystem with broader pedagogical ambitions. 

At the start of the summer we opened a modest physical space in Liverpool, in a storefront of a listed building with a chequered past that occupies an entire block of the old mercantile district of the city centre. The first, main space is hung wall to ceiling with an archive of framed objects we've been assembling over the last decade. Each artefact is the *source material* for an illustration originally reproduced within one of the journal's essays, or 'bulletins'. By 'source material' I mean that each individual item is in some sense an original object rather than a reproduction, including oil paintings, watercolors, polaroids, record covers, transparencies, woodcuts, posters, charts, and an ouija board.


The point is to assemble this slowly growing archive of unusually telling objects into a toolbox for teaching. Each item is the iceberg tip of a larger set of cultural ideas, and as such lends itself to being unpacked, debated and discussed together with a dedicated audience. The presence of these objects foregrounds experience over convenience. There is usually a lot to be gained from being in the physical presence of the actual artefacts rather than, say, projected images of the same. We might shift to focus on qualities inherent in their technical production (the precarious development of a watercolor, the painstaking labour of a woodcut), or deduce extra information from their surfaces (a circle of coffee on a 7-inch postpunk single, the speedy decay of pages from a piece of newsprint). Moreover, the ways in which these things came to be collected are often as rich in anecdotes as the things themselves.

This is the sense in which The Serving Library is conceived as an ecosystem: every six months we publish a set of bulletins on a theme (psychedeila, fashion, sport, numbers, colour) that are simultaneously availabe to download for free or purchase in print; this serves as a semester's worth of reading material and presupposes a new set of potential acquisitions for the walls; these aspects provide both a current topic to think through, and a backdrop in which to do it ... which in turn generates new ideas for subsequent development and publication.

The space operates at three parallel 'speeds', the most immediate or 'quickest' of which is its presence as a walk-in archive – not unlike a modern, provincial younger cousin of John Soane's Museum in London. Anyone may view the archive when we happen to be there during working hours, or otherwise by appointment. The second, slightly 'slower' speed involves a regular series of public events in the space, usually one evening roughly every three weeks. These are typically one-person talks or two-person discussions, or sometimes film screenings, that either speak to one or more objects on the wall, relate to material from the latest or upcoming issue of the journal, or interrogate some currently ubiquitous but little-understood word under the heading 'Keywords for Dummies'. The third, 'slowest' speed takes the form of a series of more concentrated, intensive week-long seminar courses arranged with specific schools and universities, again based on a theme relating to either the latest or upcoming publications.

In the upcoming weeks in Geneva I will talk more about individual items in the space, and we will read their tethered texts to develop a deeper idea of how and why the format functions – or not. This all leads towards a trip to Liverpool in November, to spend a week in the space trying out the slowest speed described above. We will anticipate the next bulletins' umbrella theme, 'perspectve', by developing projects in situ designed to foster close reading and explore 'observations from a fixed position'. 

Ultimately the idea is to get you to think through how such a hybrid system – and the ethics behind it – might feed your own work.