Alvin & Yuchen

From Yuchen to Alvin

For the month of April, the long-distance collaboration between Alvin and Yuchen has become longer-distanced, as Alvin went on a month-long trip to China. Here we present to you our second newsletter, written from Yuchen to Alvin, from a temporary residence (New York) to a home once upon a time (Shanghai). In this letter, Yuchen dwells on the hypothesis that there is a negative correlation between vitality and meaning, and applies this hypothesis in her attempt to comparatively understand museum and library, collection and circulation, communicative gestures and monologue – such as writing a letter. -- Yuchen & Alvin

Dear Traveler:

I’ve been refraining myself from asking about your trip, despite my great curiosity. One reason is that I imagine you would have too much to tell, which then would make the project of telling impossible – this is true for me whenever I travel. As the journey is still unfolding, one has little critical distance from one’s experience, but wrapped in a flow where all sceneries and encounters appear to be equally imminent and ambiguously significant, pregnant with meanings yet to be disclosed. But the process of articulation will have to involve organization, omission and simplification, which I'd like to postpone as much as possible.

I have probably shared this with you, a beautiful (pseudo-)theory told by the poet Li-Young Lee[1]: when we inhale, there’s more oxygen in the blood, our bones get bigger, and the body has more vitality; when we exhale, the air is used and we are dying a little. And since all speech is performed with exhalation, that is, with dead air, there seems to be a negative linkage between meaning and vitality: meaning appears when vitality diminishes. Just like at the end of a happy day one writes in the diary: today was good. Just like our feelings of someone would surface and take shape after we spend time with them. Just like the reflection of a journey shall only begin when the journey is over, and the traveler is back home.

If we project this linkage onto the project of meaning making on a greater scale, can we say that museums are also fueled by the once here and no longer, that is, by death? In the words of Chris Marker, 'When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter into art. This botany of death is what we call culture.' [2] I went to Paris for the first time last summer and visited the Guimet Museum, a museum famous for its collection of Greco-Buddhist, Serindian, Indian, and Khmer sculptures. Immersed in such a wide-ranged, high quality and transnational collection, I was able to see with my eyes how the face, hair and fashion of the Buddha gradually changed along the Silk Road and over time, connecting dots of imagery into lines of history. However, I was unsettled by the fact that hundreds of deities, each with fantastic power, each coming from a specific locale and community, were displayed in such close proximity that evoked to me how T-shirts are showcased in Uniqlo. They are examined, numbered, and categorized, instead of being bowed to, feared for, and worshiped. They no longer express cult value (which was also their use value) but only exhibition value. Vitality is sacrificed in the pursuit of meaning making.

A library’s collection differs from a museum’s collection in this regard: books in a library by and large want to be used. As manifested by the first line of The Five Laws of Library Science, coined by S. R. Ranganathan in 1931, 'Books are for use.'[3] To be used is to be opened, browsed, read, borrowed, scanned, remembered, loved, and questioned; is to participate in the material and spiritual circulation of the world. Library books take subways, visit parks, travel in our pockets, and sleep on our beds. They are exposed to the danger of being worn, stained, creased, torn, abandoned, and lost. They age with us. They live lives.

However, I don’t mean to erect museums/libraries, art works/books, death/vitality as oppositions. As we both know (and live by): binary thinking doesn’t work. The moment when I was in the presence of the majestic and horrifying Giant’s Causeway at the Guimet Museum, a 4.26-meter-tall sculpture depicting the churning of the Ocean of Milk, I was captivated by its vitality. It was moving, menacing, demanding my admiration and perhaps even surrender. I forgot the condition of our encounter – French protectorate of Cambodia and French colonial empire at large – but stood in stillness with my heart pounding, hands sweating, and eyes affixed. And no matter how advanced and forever-advancing the technologies, and how much the conservation budget, artworks in museums’ collections are aging too, even though temporalized to such a rate that’s less felt. Moreover, other than guarding the past, museums also have future driven initiatives such as educational programs and publishing; while many libraries have non-circulative books and inaccessible rooms. I also don’t think accessibility is intrinsically and unconditionally a good thing. For instance, the Book of Death in ancient Egypt is a kind of publication made for one reader (the one deceased), with whom it shall be buried.

Real footage from Yuchen's letter writing scene. The book with red cover is Shelf Documents: Art Library as Practice, whose many essays have influenced Yuchen's thinking on the topic. Image courtesy of Chang Yuchen.

I’m writing to you now from Greenpoint Library, a neighborhood branch of Brooklyn Public Library, where kids are screaming, librarians are chatting, people who share this communal table with me are leaving, arriving, sneezing, coughing, drinking water and making phone calls – so much vitality. As established in our first letter, a library offers much more than books: the tables for work, the couches for rest, the restrooms and water fountains for sustaining life, the at once disciplinary and erotic environment for our best behaviours – all is useful. I recently met with a dear friend Anna Collins, who is finishing a degree in library and information science. Anna reminded me (did I ever know this?), before the internet, libraries were where people went to seek information, for example, on how to fix a broken sink. And nowadays, this pragmatic functionality of libraries is still being activated by incarcerated people. "Someone incarcerated by the New York City Department of Correction could write to the New York Public Library Jail & Prison Services and ask, say, ‘What are the national parks of the U.S?’ Then, the librarians would be assigned to do the research, choosing what to include or omit and arranging the information in an approachable way. This is called information organization.” In the end, a letter that lists all national parks of the U.S., with descriptions and possibly pictures, would be composed and sent to the questioner in jail/prison. This responding letter cannot exceed 18 pages, in which maps are prohibited.

Is it a sheer coincidence that our first impulse as librarians was to write a letter to each other and together? Letter writing also requires information organization: I am making a display out of what's in my life and on my mind. Dots of feelings have to be spun into threads of sentences, and then woven into patches of paragraphs. One of the first books in English that I bought (from one of the aforementioned used book stores in Chicago 10 years ago) is titled The Cultures of Collecting[4], and in its introduction, Noah is credited to be the first collector: '...anything overlooked will be lost forever, between including and excluding there’s no half measure. The collection is the unique bastion against the deluge of time.' Now, I’m at the end of this letter, in which I intended to collect and communicate my recent thoughts on the topic of the library to you. Will the overlooked ones be taken by the flood of life and lost forever? Maybe a library is a collection of thought debris.

Looking forward to hearing from you, and my belated, bon voyage.



[1] I’m paraphrasing Li-Young Lee here. The video documentation of this reading can be found here: Li-Young Lee’s work was introduced to me by Fan Wu – a member of 'committee of friends'.

[2] The opening lines of Les statues meurent aussi, a 1953 French essay film directed by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker.

[3] This I encountered on The Library Was, published by OOMK.

[4]The Cultures of Collecting, edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, published by Reaktion Books, London, 1994.