In a dark forest made of books
Immersive technology, Audubon’s birds set free, memorycide and Captain Nemo’s private library
Just as the selection and arrangement of words can provide insight into our psyches, so can that of the books in our libraries. Both public and private libraries are places rich with symbolic significance, reflecting not only our interests but also our classificatory systems. The ways in which human knowledge and the products of the human imagination have been organized are indicative of broader assumptions regarding the order of things.
The Tower of Babel remains one of the most potent symbols of humanity’s attempt to master space. The Library of Alexandria, in turn, has become a troubling symbol of our attempt to master time. Built on the orders of the Ptolemaic kings at the end of the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was designed to bring together, in one place and in systematized form, all the written products of civilization deemed worthy of survival. In his celebrated short story “The Library of Babel”, Jorge Luis Borges highlights the intimate relation between these two dreams of mastery. Neither dream would escape a violent end, as visitors of this exhibition have the opportunity to experience almost first-hand.
Inspired by Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006), the show was designed by Robert Lepage and his production company Ex Machina to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque in 2015. Currently on at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the exhibition takes the form of an immersive virtual reality in which viewers are transported into ten magnificent libraries, one of which is fictional (belonging to Captain Nemo), while the others (apart from the Library of Alexandria) are all still in existence. The contrast between these libraries and the decidedly brutalist BNF, so memorably derided in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), could not be more striking. Having traversed a room displaying images and objects held at the BNF, visitors are ushered into a replica of Manguel’s own library, a conversion of a former chapel barn in the Loire region. It is here, in darkness and with artificial rain falling outside the small, ivy-clad windows, that visitors are provided with headsets and earphones, and first encounter Manguel’s pleasantly melodic voice as he recounts highlights from his book.
You are then led into the adjacent room, a library stocked with old-fashioned wooden tables and revolving chairs between which tall birch trees rise up, their leaves taking the form of books, disturbing any clear distinction between inside and outside. Here, too, darkness reigns, disrupted only by the halo of the green-shaded reading lamps. It is in this eerie space that visitors put on their headsets. The impact of the 360° technology is at once impressive and disorientating. You arch your neck and turn in your chair so as not miss any of the many architectural details to which the audioguide refers.
The order of entering the libraries is left to the viewer. The burning of the Library of Alexandria is experienced from the point of view of someone sitting in the midst of its massive stock of papyrus scrolls. Following this conflagration, the new Library of Alexandria is seen from above, a bright disk illuminating the Egyptian night. We dive 20,000 leagues under the sea to access the private library of Captain Nemo on the Nautilus while sea creatures swim past the porthole. From below, you look up at the skeleton of a whale suspended in Mexico City’s massive Biblioteca Vasconcelos. The bombing of the National Library in Sarajevo during the Balkan War of 1992–5 is accompanied by the music of a lone cellist sitting on its stairs, playing Albinoni’s haunting Adagio in G minor. As Manguel observes, this particular act of destruction led to the coining of a new and terrible word: “memorycide”. Designed to reflect the peaceful co-existence of different cultures, the architecture of the library in Sarajevo contrasts dramatically with that of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which confidently asserts the supremacy of American achievements.
In Ottawa’s Library of Parliament, Lepage and his team release the birds from the confines of John James Audubon’s celebrated Birds of America, their flight regarded sternly by Queen Victoria, whose statue stands at the centre of the reading room. In the narrow, elongated body of the Copenhagen University Library, Victorian ghosts move silently among the “dead books” – those that have never been classified and are no longer accessible – while modern-day knowledge seekers work on their laptops, calling up digitized texts. It is in this “mummified” space that the aura of the library becomes most apparent.
“At night, the library becomes a dream machine”, the BNF’s website promises. Yet the idea of night is only present in some of the scenes, and, overall, the exhibition inclines more towards the documentary-historical than the creative-imaginative. The immersive technology is its most impressive feature, and one is left wishing that it had been exploited even more creatively, that many more creatures of the imagination had been released into the night of these virtual library spaces. In his book, Manguel fantasizes about a library in which “the hero of The Castle would embark on the Pequod in search of the Holy Grail, land on a deserted island to rebuild society from fragments shored against his ruins, speak of his first centenary encounter with ice and recall, in excruciating detail, his early going to bed”. A wilder mingling of the literary-imaginary with historical reality might have made this exhibition even more memorable.