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A century unfolds in a silent room

Gordon Munro tells us about Future Library, a project from Katie Paterson that turns hope into art


The new Deichman Bjørvika Bibliotek containing Katie Paterson’s on going Future Library project

“It reminded me of burying things as a child, to be discovered long into the future, exciting the curiosity of the finder” Margaret Atwood



“In the face of so much suffering, if art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie.” Albert Camus: Create Dangerously

Coronavirus has closed museums and galleries but there was an irrepressible vitality about the Now Exhibition at Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art.

Showing remarkable optimism - especially in these viral environmental times - a forest of one thousand Norwegian spruce trees has been planted at Nordmarka just outside Oslo.

The trees will grow for a hundred years, along with other local self-seeded birch and pine, and at the end they will be used to create an anthology of one thousand books from one hundred unread texts deposited with the Future Library.

The texts will come from a range of artists, over time, chosen by a committee who are charged with playing a part in realising the project - an undertaking that will outlive the originating artist, the selected artists, the current committee – and you, reading this right now.

Commenced in 2014, it will end in 2114. The faith all of the above have that it will happen is in itself a sign of hope and one that deserves support as well as success.

Playing its part is City of Oslo council along with the Agency for Cultural Affairs and Agency for Urban Environment. They have the responsibility of working with the artist and Future Library Trust to ensure the protection of the forest and the manuscripts.

Taking the role seriously, they have commissioned a Library Room – the Silent Room - designed by architects Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem, in the New Deichmanske Bibliotek in Oslo.

It’s a magnificent space reflecting the aesthetic of the project with a design made with wood from the forest. Resembling tree rings from floor to ceiling, it contains drawers to host the documents and contributions securely.

Again, this is a bold move by a public authority in the face of the storm of digital onslaught on the word but it also shows trust in the concept of the project itself. Glimpses of the Silent Room and the project itself can be seen in Katie Paterson’s film, Future Library: A Century Unfolds, (watch which accompanied the exhibition.

The space will display both the authors’ name and the title of their work but the works themselves will remain unseen and unread until 2114.

The first contribution was that of Margaret Atwood, who was “honoured and flattered” to be asked, but also admired the optimism inherent in the idea that humankind will still be around in a hundred years to witness the culmination of “this endeavor.”

She told The Guardian that it reminded her of burying things as a child, to be discovered long into the future, exciting the curiosity of the finder. The idea of her voice being heard after being silent for quite some time also intrigued Atwood: a neat summary of what this work attempts.

Joining her in writing for the future and future generations so far are David Mitchell (2015), Icelandic writer Sjón (2016), Turkish writer Elif Shafak (2017) and Korean author Han Kang (2018). The Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgard will present his (2019) manuscript at the annual procession and handover ceremony in the Future Library forest on 5 September 2020.

The work becomes interactive at the annual ceremony in Nordmarka itself. This constitutes a walk that is open to all and has grown each year as word spreads about the torrent of words to come in the future.

There will follow ongoing readings from the all the authors involved, though not from their submitted text - only the title of that will be revealed.

All events will include a talk given by the writers in the evening at the Bibliotek. This year’s would have been extra special as it is the official opening of the Future Library Room.

A secular act of faith

It was Elif Shafak who described the work as that ‘secular act of faith’ but it is more than that, it reminds us how the printed word is produced and arrives in our world. It reminds us to take care of our world not just to make sure that the promise and endeavour of Future Library is fulfilled but also that the environment that created it is looked after as well.

This interdependence is a key element of the work. As is time. The artist points out that a hundred years is not a long time “in cosmic terms” but “the human timescale of one hundred years is more confronting.”

However its proximity is not close enough for the current participants and even the artist is not sure her daughter will see the denouement despite being born after the project started. But the challenge is being engaged with, and that is key.

Check it out if you can. Although in real life the virus closed the Now Exhibition you can still visit virtually through various online outlets. Just burrow around…

You can also find out more from the artist’s site supported by the Ingleby Gallery, and the Future Library site.

That famous Nobel address from Camus, Create Dangerously, a quote from which opens this piece, also observed:

“The time of the irresponsible artists is over… The freedom of art is not worth much when its only purpose is to assure the artists comfort.”

Katie Paterson’s work takes that observation and invocation to heart. Go see it however you can.

Info This article first appeared in Sceptical Scot

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