Dexter Sinister, the collaborative effort of graphic designers Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt (best known for their interdisciplinary arts journal Dot Dot Dot) is currently blending its multitudinous ventures in designing, writing, editing, publishing and exhibiting into a singular institution—a collectively built archive called The Serving Library. It comprises a physical collection of books and objects, a free online PDF library and a publishing platform stemming from both to continually generate and distribute new content.
This summer at the Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery (where I’m a member of the staff as a curatorial research work study) The Serving Library was installed to reflect its status as a public proposition for a new kind of library—neither archival nor circulating, but distributing—and took form as a model showroom, the carpet cut away in a spotlit corner holding a modest table and chairs. Visual material hung on two walls behind, with paintings and lithographs bearing the same import as album covers, paperbacks and posters, all of which had previous lives as illustrations in Dot Dot Dot. A tiny bookshelf tucked behind the back wall held the books: Dexter Sinister’s own publications amidst volumes referenced in the pages of Dot Dot Dot (which folded in 2010) and its new incarnation, Bulletins of the Serving Library. This set of objects will expand each time The Serving Library is reincarnated or a new text is published.
The Serving Library’s life as an exhibition was, however, perhaps not altogether consequential and was secondary to its role as a mise en scène for rethinking pedagogy and language. The gallery was used this summer as the classroom for daily seminars with artists in a residency program led by Bailey, Reinfurt and invited guests, and it was animated as the vehicle for communal knowledge generation. It indeed deflated somewhat when the artists departed in mid-August.
A project like The Serving Library relies on collaborators, but it is also unapologetically and necessarily a niche library, and raises it issues of engagement. Working at the Banff Centre, I’ve been privy to polemical reactions from a varied strata of visitors, for example invited guests versus uninitiated gallery browsers. The Serving Library runs on parallel narratives—taking specific topics such as the state of libraries and design education as a starting point for articulating broader concerns of the historical present and current cultural conditions. This can be oblique, as the library aims to be the sum of its parts without being finite: to have everything in its logical place but to resist over-explaining and killing the curiosity drive that maintains individual learning. To paraphrase the “curiosity versus information” graph proffered in Dot Dot Dot and in a Serving Library seminar by curator Anthony Huberman: If you don’t know anything, your curiosity fails to pique, but the same also happens if you know too much. The Serving Library strove to live at the tip of this arc, a highly precarious zone. What may have seemed a closed circuit was in fact a delineated group process, actively setting up particular conditions for dialogue. Still, it proved impenetrable for many.
Dilettantism did not fly here, and time commitment was integral to the project: through print and publishing, Dexter Sinister created a lasting presence for thoughts and figures, countering the rapid turnover common in current art systems. In this spirit, the library in Banff refused easy digestion and continually questioned the status quo.
Do our established models for libraries, exhibitions, publishing and art and design education continue to serve us adequately? As an exhibition and model library, The Serving Library demanded a lot of its visitors, and the rewards may have been a slow reveal. It spoke to the difficulty of reflecting on something while you’re in it—contemporary culture, reality, a text, an exhibition—but in this uncertainty the ongoing library project maintains its generative path, never complacent.