Books, Brian Dettmer, Jorge Borges, and “Antisocial Media”

The universe is a library, existing ab aeterno—from time immemorial—in Borges’ allegory of “The Library of Babel.” The library is an infinite architecture of hexagonal galleries whose shelves creak under the weight of books dusty and bound with gloom of incomplete knowledge. Leagues of searchers patrol these galleries, seeking the Total Book; the perfect medium that answers all, unites all. But these are a superstitious many, driven by the popular hope that finality follows form. Brian Dettmer’s Antisocial Media at Chicago’s Packer Schopf Gallery reverses this dogma with a redefinition of form itself. In this gallery, books—the linear media of specious certainty—become bent and bowed, such that finality here becomes, in Borges’ words, one “of insensate cacophony, of verbal farragoes and incoherencies.”

Central to Borges’ metaphysics is the alphabet, the presentations and combinations of which are contained in the universal library’s entropic collection. In one book, a labyrinth of letters and mere glimpses of coherence. In another, absurdities, impieties, and laces of bad taste. These and other negative qualities are words venerated by pedantic disciple of the status quo who prefers the comforts of common sense and the surety of mainstream support. For this one, which is many, a book is judged horizontally, line-by-line. Staid social truths are built on such orthographic stilts, which are as hallowed as steel but as hollow as Styrofoam. Dettmer’s Emergency Exit stands as a response to this; a door-shaped sculpture near the stairway entry to Packer Schopf, made with layers of burnt paperback book pages and treated with acrylic varnish, both physically and conceptually providing the option of unimpeded return to safety in numbers.

Searchers foregoing the luxury of an emergency exit move beyond the entryway and into Dettmer’s own hexagon, which in this case takes of the form of Packer Schopf’s dressed-down industrial space. Much like Dettmer’s practice, which repurposes old media into new forms, the Packer Schopf Gallery is itself a repurposed form, effectively reinforcing the infinite recursion of Borgesian geometry. This recursion is mirrored on several low pillars positioned throughout the hall, where Entrees and Womb stand as refractive sculptures; hardcover books twisted into cylindrical forms with faces surgically carved to reveal the illustrated and multi-level collages of their interiors. Like much of Dettmer’s work, these sculptures function as dioramas dedicated to finitude, though, as in the Library of Babel, they seem to conjure “the dream that the polished surfaces feign and promise infinity.”

The greatest testament to the anti-sociality of Dettmer’s work adorns the eastern wall of the gallery. Divided into five parts, each composed of multiple volumes from an old atlas series, Americana 62 subverts the encyclopedic tendency of the linear mind by literally carving through its center. Subterranean cutaways connect the blue oceans of the books’ aged geographic gatefolds, eliminating histories and nations with the judgment of an inquisition by scalpel. On one hand, this could be an incarnation of that same spirit which demands that books be burnt and voices be silenced for some semblance of cultural preservation. But on the other hand, this reflects the absurdity of such destruction. The library—the universe—is so immense that such media genocide is like taking a cup of water from the Atlantic and calling the ocean dry.

As a sculptor, Dettmer has crafted his career out of unconventionalism, but beyond being merely antagonistic, his work in Antisocial Media also aims to vitiate method. Because method, in this case, is the imposition of order, which undergirds superstition of the searchers, wandering from hexagon to hexagon, in search of the Total Book. Method is the language of the many. In Borges’ terms, it distracts from the present condition of humanity, which is itself constrained to a single shelf-long volume within its own hexagonal gallery. Dettmer posits a radical rhetoric of pied disarray—his own Borgesian dhcmrlchtdj. His sculptures constitute a kind of collage that seems chaotic, though Borges speaks of an eternal voyager who, after centuries exploring the galleries in any direction, will find each volume—no matter its assemblage—repeated ad infinitum. This, for Borges, is Order itself, and as his own statement of anti-sociality, he writes, “My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope.”

[This was a review written for entry in the 2015 Frieze Writers’ Prize competition. Brian Dettmer’s Antisocial Media ran at Chicago’s Packer Schopf Gallery from May 8 to June 27, 2015.]

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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