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The Fifth Reading Room

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The cover of Reading Room 5

The 5th issue of Reading Room, ‘A Space For Reading', opens with a year-long exchange of letters between Wystan Curnow and Allan Smith. Curnow's brief foreword to these conversations situates the activity of reading as the “core vocational activity of two art critics, whose avid reading shapes their writing, and vice versa.” These meditations describe the various ways a book is tangible, both in its physicality, and in the palpability of the mental space it might occupy in its reader.

Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture

Issue 5, 2012
The Space of Reading
Assorted essays, roundtable conversations, extended emailed dialogues, artist/writer statements and archival articles
Editors: Christina Barton, Natasha Conland and Wystan Curnow
224 pp and colour with b/w illustrations
RRP $25
Published by E. H. McCormack Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2012

The 5th issue of Reading Room (1.) , ‘A Space For Reading’, opens with a year-long exchange of letters between Wystan Curnow and Allan Smith. Curnow’s brief foreword to these conversations situates the activity of reading as the “core vocational (not vacational) activity of two art critics, whose avid reading shapes their writing, and vice versa.”(2.)  These meditations describe the various ways a book is tangible, both in its physicality, and in the palpability of the mental space it might occupy in its reader. Throughout these letters, the business of daily life and the activities of working, reading and writing are described, establishing the fluidly intertwined spaces of the world, the reader and the book. In part, Smith and Curnow’s letters deconstruct the figure of ‘the reader’ as reading machine (an entity that reads), and in their description of themselves as readers - the how, where and what - they examine the work of reading, how it becomes a form of production of its own. These reflections on their own work as readers proliferates a kind of fertile descriptiveness; by thinking through, or writing through the spaces of their own reading, they begin to sketch out a mental landscape, a text of the reader’s activity.

In turn, the ‘What Am I Reading Questionnaire’ asks respondents to describe what they read, where they read it, and in what manner. These readers themselves then become texts, offering decodings of their own habits, research, and obsessions. In particular, the contribution from et al colonizes the territory of the questionnaire with a narrative masquerading as raw data - the history from an internet browser laid out as lists of webpages. Tracing through clues, a dense pattern emerges; narratives of war, power and global terrorism (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, CIA - The World Factbook - Afghanistan) at play with art institutional dialogues (The New Museum, Peter Friedl, Secret Modernity / Journal / e-flux, WHEN ATTITUDES BECOME FORM), and the languages of both physical and virtual sites, the dialogues of power and place in a globalized, post-Internet context of politics and aesthetics.

The journal also considers how reading inhabits, defines and scripts environments; looking at art and curatorial practice, reading might be construed as a way of mapping the space of a room, a gallery, a configuration of texts, or the exhibition as a textual composition. The roundtable convened by Natasha Conland, ‘Reading Exhibitions’, discusses how an exhibition might be legible as a narrative, proposition, and as document, and what might be generated from approaching curatorial practice through an expanded sense of the exhibition as text. More literally, Anna Parlane’s exegesis of the foundation of the EH McCormick research library provides a precise record of how a ‘Room for Reading’ in Auckland Art Gallery was argued for, built, and then developed, while Julia Waite’s analysis of Kate Newby’s sculpture terrace work unpicks Newby’s habit of reading built space. The reproductions of research drawings and plans for Newby’s I’m Just a Pile of Leaves project illustrates the palimpsestic manner by which the artist deciphers the specificities of the gallery’s architecture and site, and its relationship to the urban space of the city and neighbouring park.

But how to contest legibility itself? In ‘Stopgap Measures: Reading Mike Kelley’s Writings’, John C. Welchman’s describes how Kelley thought of texts as complex machines with their own ‘structures and histories, blind spots and illuminations, relevance and detours’.(3.)   Welchman’s discussion of the provocations, challenges and deviations in Kelley’s writing, and its connection back to his wider art practice considers how both reading and texts are systems that are open to failure and breakdown. Deborah Cain’s ‘Walking Backwards, Reading Lu Xun: Shanghai, 2011’ weaves her study of Lu Xun, and the influence he wields on pedagogy today as a canonical fixture of Chinese education, with a discussion of contemporary politics, art and critical practice in more recent times. Cain’s text presents these different threads alongside anecdotal snapshots of China’s political history, and her text, by being deliberately non-linear and circuitous, delivers a sense of the complexity involved in approaching the task or ‘reading, writing and looking’ as a relative outsider in China.

But the suggestion of embedded difficulty and a deconstruction of how a text might fail to deliver meaning altogether, is perhaps made most present in Layla Rudneva Mackay’s piece, plainly titled, ‘Reading’. Mackay applies an overt legibility - enlarged sans serif text, anecdotal narrative voice - and balances this against the narrator’s struggle with dyslexia. This text uses a different example of a reading machine - the computer, which then reads the books back to its user. ‘Reading’ describes a breakdown of the apparatus: an internal reading machine that won’t decipher the code produced by the letters on the page. But it also breaks down the act of reading itself, and reassembles these parts into a different kind of text. Mackay enlarges and examines the code generated by the patterns of letters, page, voice and meaning, and emphasizes that this system is one that is constituted subjectively, is not transparent, but opaque, and only made legible by the application and operation of reading machines - that is readers in the form of people and technology - who arrive at a text carrying their own bundle of ideas, privilege, and to borrow from Kelley, blind spots and illuminations.

Rudneva-Mackay’s contribution goes the furthest in demarcating a space for the reader of this book; a space on the page itself where the very operation of how one reads is contested. But in its project as a whole, in laying out the conditions of reading and by outlining how it might operate and function in relation to other activities and environments (like an art practice, a writing practice, an exhibition, or a gallery), this journal creates its own space, a textual landscape for this figure of The Reader. Reading Room 5 covers much ground in describing the ways in which the multitudinous and variating practices of reading - of books, space, art, buildings, site, politics and histories - can be used to illuminate our positions, blind spots, prejudices and illuminations - the places we take and the positions we read from, in our project of constructing ourselves, our lives and our work.

Julia Lomas

(1.)  The 6th will be launched shortly.
(2.) ‘Days of Reading: Letters between Wystan Curnow and Allan Smith’, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture - The Space of Reading. Issue 5, 2012. Auckland Art Gallery, 6.

(3.) John C Welchman, ‘Stopgap Measures: Reading Mike Kelley’s Writings’, Reading Room, 53.

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