OMG, Bring a Book! The Library Goes to Critical Jamming

ICP Museum 2018
a plethora of books brought from the Library for the occasion, photo by Cathy de la Cruz

Yours truly and ICP Head Librarian and Archivist Matthew Carson participated in the recent panel From X-Files to The Matrix: Reality Disintegrated, held on Sunday, March 4 at the ICP Museum.

In the words of organizer Claudine Boeglin:

The 90s. It was an era of hope bracketed between the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the fall of the two World Trade Center towers (2001). New aspirations of politics, technology, and culture gradually vanished, prefigured by the dark conspiracy theories of The X-Files and The Matrix, where the known world is an illusion.

In an active roundtable, moderators and speakers will introduce different angles and stories around the theme of reality disintegrated. Through references to pop culture, counterculture, and activism, they will rebuild the zeitgeist of an era in an oblique, improvisatory fashion. This conversation will offer a post-modern magnifying glass in which to reflect upon the times we live in. In an effort to activate this exchange, the audience will be invited to participate through responses, comments, and suggestions.


  • Matthew Carson, ICP Head Librarian and Archivist
  • Bernard Yenelouis, Artist, writer, library staff, ICP


  • Aron Morel, London-based indie publisher
  • Janette Beckman, photographer
  • Nick Waplington, artist and photographer
  • Cathy de la Cruz, writer and member of the riot grrrl movement and Sister Spit
  • Avram Finkelstein, artist, writer, and activist
  • Carlo McCormick, senior editor of Paper
  • Guy Martin, photographer

Given the unstructured approach to the afternoon, the moniker “moderator” is best understood as a placeholder at best in terms of our participation. There were multiple layers of conversations, the highlight for me being a critical presentation by Avram Finkelstein, discussing images in relation to propaganda, capitalism, and colonialism.

Avram Finkelstein ICP Museum 2018
Avram Finkelstein, photo by Bernard Yenelouis

I had neither hope or inclination to “rebuild the zeitgeist” of this specific era, except as a method to understand present times.  The notion of such an action brings me back to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History (1940).

The ninth thesis reads:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.

I will also pull these fragments from the seventh thesis:

once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

And the eighth thesis:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency.

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, formerly owned by Walter Benjamin, collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The melancholic, “negative” aspects to Benjamin’s theses remind me of a comment I heard by the historian Iain Boal, at an academic conference on anarchism at Cornell University,  that negativity is important to sustain in the positivist world we live in.

How can we deconstruct the ability of photography (and all subsequent image-based media) to support and sustain this veil of positivist illusion of reality and its uses as propaganda and advertisement?

For Finkelstein there are only principles of propaganda and advertising at work, echoing constant political tensions underlying mass media in relation to, and as examples of forms of power. For the younger participants, 1990s photobooks were a physical link to an analog childhood that has vivid retrospective lines and colors in contradistinction to the abstractions of virtuality that have colonized our sense of the everyday.

The photograph informs us of what we want and how we want it. How can we disturb the neat sequences of the picture press, which make disasters appear temporal, recognizable in simple strokes, and as unimportant as any commodity? Where happiness  needs to be a thing seen and owned? Where vision is equated with possession? Does it have to be like that?

Looking at the books pulled from the shelves one can see that publishing had a different tenor to it. Given ICP’s long ties to documentary and photojournalism one can see an emphasis on these forms, while practitioners were shifting from magazine assignments to books, exhibitions and other forms associated with the art world. That shift is even more extreme now. Fashion was also moving to a similarly curated sphere. Among the books we could not locate which we would deem as important to this time period were Wolfgang Tillmans’ first book from Taschen and Nan Goldin’s The Other Side. And the library does not own a copy of Zoe Leonard’s  The Fae Richards Archive. We all agreed that there were not enough women or races represented in this snapshot view. By the same token, the erratic selection is not meant to be a shopping list either, but a consideration of possible tools for looking backwards.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that these books were acquired when ICP was still located uptown in the former Willard Straight house, where the library was a small room filled with books and there was no catalog of its holdings or a trained librarian. Books were acquired sporadically, most often when requested directly for a class. With such constraints in place a library could still evolve and emerge.

Slavoj Zizek in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (dir. Sophie Fiennes, 2012)

The 1990s revisited – books from the library brought to Critical Jamming:

Nobuyoshi Araki, Sentimental Journey  TR654.A73 1991

David Armstrong, The Silver Cord  TR680.A75 1997

David Armstrong & Nan Goldin, A Double Life  TR680.G65 1994

Richard Billingham, Ray’s A Laugh  TR681.F28.B55 1996

The Boston School (ICA)  TR680.B67 1995

Sophie Calle, Double Game  TR179.5.C35 1999

Larry Clark, The Perfect Childhood  TR681.Y6.C53 1995

Contemporary German Photography (Taschen)  TR646.G3 C66 1997

Douglas Crimp & Adam Rolston, AIDS DemoGraphics  TR820.C75 1990

Corinne Day, Diary  TR820.5.G7.D39 2000

William Eggleston, Ancient and Modern   TR647.E27 1992

Jim Goldberg, Raised by Wolves  TR820.5.U6.G55 1995

Paul Gorman, The Story of The Face  TR146.G676 2017

Paul Graham, End of an Age  TR680.G73 1999

Paul Graham, Empty Heaven  TR647.G73 1995

Eikoh Hosoe, Meta  TR647.467 1991

Will McBride, Coming of Age  TR681.B6.M37 1994

Boris Mikhailov, Case History  TR820.5.U38. M53 1999

Mark Morrisroe, Mark Morrisroe  TR676.M67 1999

James Nachtwey, Inferno  TR820.6.N33 1999

Camilla Nickerson & Neville Wakefield, Fashion  TR679.F37 1998

Gabriel Orozco, Gabriel Orozco  TR140.076 2000 & TR140.078 2000

Martin Parr, The Cost of Living  TR820.5.G7.P37 1989

Gilles Peress, Telex Iran  TR820.5.I7.P47 1983

Jack Pierson, All of a Sudden  TR654.P54 1995

Jack Pierson, The Lonely Life  TR654.P54 1997

Eugene Richards, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue  TR681.D7.R53 1994

Gerhard Richter, Atlas  TR647.R53 1997

Joseph Rodriguez, East Side Stories  TR820.5.R63 1998

Joseph Rodriguez, Spanish Harlem  TR820.R641 1994

Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here  TR187.R67 1999

Cindy Sherman, The Complete Untitled Film Stills  TR681.W6.554 2003

Stephen Shore, American Surfaces  TR647.S36 1999

Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home  TR681.F28.S85 1992

Nick Waplington, Living Room  TR681.F28.W36 1991

Nick Waplington, The Wedding  TR819.W36 1996

Brian Weil, Every 17 Seconds  TR820.W45 1992

Carrie Mae Weems, The Louisiana Project  TR647.W44 2004

David Wojnarowicz, Brush Fires  TR140.W65 1994

David Wojnarowicz, Tongues of Flame  TR647.W65 1992


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