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Hate Library – Interview with Artist Nick Thurston Part 2: Publishing Hate

This is the second and final interview concerning Nick Thurston’s ‘Hate Library’ and its exhibition at 2018’s transmediale in Berlin. Part 1 can be found here.

Richard Pettifer: You spent 3-4 years with the material. What did you learn about publishing ethics from close contact with such material – for example, in relation to censorship?

Nick Thurston: The project came from a blossoming conversation and friendship with the Director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, Matthew Feldman, who, like the Searchlight team, has long been doing vital analytical and publishing work from a historically-informed perspective. I’m not a historian. What jumped at me when introduced to these media bubbles was their extent. There’s far too much to read and it keeps expanding exponentially. I’m not involved in big data analysis, and shallow readings didn’t feel like the right way of approaching this material. ‘Hate Library’ isn’t a robust body of evidence for anything, least of all clumsy generalisations. It’s partial in both senses of the word, as something that’s incomplete and biased. What it offers, and enables, is a partial reading, a partial close reading, a reading that gets too close. It’s excessive in the opposite sense: it gets us too close to this material. I wanted to re-situate an experience of the material offline via a choreographed set of formats that would invite readings of the content as testimonies – that would get too close to what real people actually self-publish behind the mask of their avatars and social media accounts in these bubbles.

Transmediale 2018 – Face Value. February 3, 2018.

What getting too close, over several years taught me was that the content of these conversations is often offensive and hateful, but also banal. One thing that lesson made me recognise was the need for a more nuanced understanding of why categories like ‘hate speech’ are deceptively complicated as underwriters for legal or moral judgement. Like many people, I’ve conflicting feelings about the issue of free speech and web freedom, but out-of-date models of ‘free’ versus ‘censored’ speech can’t be the answer.

RP: You publish as an academic and as a poet. ‘Hate Library’ asks ‘what should be published?’ which is — or, I could cynically suggest, was — a question for an editor, albeit within the realm of art. Is ‘Hate Library’ an aestheticisation of the editorial process? If yes, how do the rules of ‘what should be published’ differ between art and literary publishing?

NT: I would call myself a writer and editor who makes artworks. Because the literary industry depends on authorial authority – on the ‘author function’, in Foucauldian terms – vital roles like design and editing are hidden away as anonymous tasks in the workflow of literary production. But they’re done by people with subjective drives and interests whose efforts make a significant difference to the things we actually end up reading. I’m interested in bringing those significances into the foreground and exploring what we’re able to write and read if these roles are allowed to be active dynamics in the production of new literary, and extra-literary, documents. In other words, I’m interested in bringing those roles from the back to the front.

In general, I’m not that interested in mounting claims about being the first person to have expressed X, Y or Z. Whether my ‘work’ involves tasks and processes we would call editorial, designerly, promotional or authorial, my only aim is to produce (or reproduce) the most interesting possible reading experiences. If someone else can say what needs to be said better than I can, or already has, that’s fine by me.  

RP: And I assume the same goes for artistic production, where the ‘back of house’ roles you’re speaking of can be even more opaque and invisible?

NT: Basically, yes.

RP: ‘Hate Library’ has implications in some current legal battles around what constitutes a ‘publisher’  and what their responsibilities are in relation to illegal content – for example, web platforms like Facebook, Google, beginning with Napster in 2001. In each case, invisible actors determine what is seen or erased from view; the editor is concealed. In ‘Hate Library’, you’re kind of occupying a version of this role, aren’t you?

NT: These ongoing and surprisingly complicated debates about the differences between a neutral platform and responsible publisher are fundamentally legal. Neutral means not liable; responsible means liable. I find their essentialist, definitionalist drive fascinating in its reductiveness. The distinction is grey, and I suspect it will be kept grey so long as one or other powerful entity risks being made liable for their users’ actions. Any rulings on this issue are of huge public consequence, and, like most people, I have conflicted feelings. What I do feel pretty certain about is that we’re missing an opportunity to develop a more sophisticated general understanding about how contemporary power operates by not talking about the greyness of this distinction, and much else that’s new about post-digital life. Accordingly, I’d say the status of ‘Hate Library’ and my role as its author are grey.

RP: Although it’s a library, there aren’t what Foucault would call ‘primary’ texts present – it’s just commentary. I’m no librarian, but it seems like most collections would focus on primary texts. Is your designation of it as a ‘library’ a way of suggesting a shift towards commentary as a source of collective knowledge, or a cultural shift towards, in Foucault’s terms, ‘what’ is uttered, and not its ‘truth’?

NT: What constitutes primary and secondary literature has fundamentally changed because our horizons for publishing have fundamentally changed. We all constantly publish and self-publish. Many of us have pretty direct access to the means of reproduction for digital-only and post-digital publishing. The modern definition of a public library would be something like a specific and changing collection of published material that users have free access to (at least at the point of service) and can determine their own use of (be that for reference and/or lending). Given all of this, I would say the contents of ‘Hate Library’ are all primary texts, some of which have been ‘cropped’. But the very fact that we’d disagree about this primary/secondary status shows again how artworks like ‘Hate Library’ could be a platform for you, me and anyone else who engages with the work to open up its problems together.

Nick Thurston, detail from Hate Library (2017), courtesy of Foksal Gallery, Warsaw

For about eight years I’ve been bringing together my literary and editorial work with my interests in the sociology of reading and public art by making temporary, functioning public libraries as artworks. These artworks treat the gallery as a specific place with specific conventions, and fill it with specific published holdings, and contextualise the audience’s access to them in specific ways. It is the most boiled-down recipe for a public library and very different from the quiet, neo-classical, civic model we tend to think of as ‘public libraries’. These spaces should be noisy and temporary, and make unusual literatures available to be read and responded to. ‘Hate Library’ is a public reference resource in this mould.

RP: Yes — in your background, this seems to have begun with the group show The Perverse Library, and continued in the solo show, Pretty Brutal Library. Is there a future for ‘Hate Library’ beyond 2018’s transmediale? Budapest, perhaps?

NT: Yes, and you’re close. It will probably go to Central Europe next year, but, first, some version of it will come back briefly to Germany, first to Jena and maybe then to Berlin.

What we’re working on now is a multi-authored collection of short- to medium-length essays that will hopefully offer informed and accessible analyses of the issues raised by the project from a range of academic, policy, and activist stances. It’s less of a catalogue and more like another public reference resource.  

RP: What is your interest in libraries?

NT: I’m interested in how public libraries become symbolic and practical tools of enfranchisement and control, and how less civilised versions of that model can be invented to allow for noisy and disruptive communities of reading. I think art might be able to play some role in the urgent challenge to re-imagine what a public library should be by exploring, first, what it could be. It’s in -that spirit that I make these library-artworks as ‘speculative libraries’, which is the working title for another book I’m preparing.

RP: Perhaps the next one could be Piecemeal Library, to denote the creeping fragmentation of public dialogues, or the slow slip from liberal to neo-liberal hegemony you referred to earlier.

NT: I probably sound like a pessimist, but, actually, I’m the opposite. I assume that whatever ‘the public’ is, or its spaces, languages, and institutions are, has always been changing under a constant struggle of positive and negative social energy. Maybe it’s always piecemeal, but artistic composition means deciding ‘this not that’. So even fragmentary form becomes an intentional non-whole, or a ‘this’ with specifically distributed arrangement. Maybe art is a space (and I’m sure there are others) where different forms of formation can be speculatively imagined. Again, not enough (the demand will always be infinite), but also not nothing.