In 1935, information scientist Paul Otlet wrote in his book Monde of a “mechanical, collective brain” where all the information in the universe could be housed. For many years, Otlet was focused on how to universalize knowledge and systematize information to create what he called a “web” of connections. In 1920 he founded the Mundaneum, in Brussels, a 150-room information emporium where vast cabinets of card catalogs were used to answer queries from the public. When the Belgian government shut down the Mundaneum in the 1930s, Otlet was forced to reflect on the project’s limitations. Living amid the stacks of index cards that had made up the Mundaneum, he dreamed of the possibilities of a paperless world.
Molly Springfield argues that Otlet’s theories offer an early blueprint for the Internet. Her show, “The Proto-History of the Internet,” features seven graphite-on-paper drawings, six of which depict Otlet’s diagrams of classification systems, taken from his book Traité de documentation. These are combined with drawn transcriptions of index entries from W. Boyd Rayward’s biography of Otlet, The Universe of Information, that relate to the diagrams in question. Springfield’s version of Otlet’s diagrams are like colorless renderings of László Moholy-Nagy’s abstract composition paintings. By removing the didactic usefulness of the diagrams, Springfield reveals their inherent formal beauty. At the same time, these works are a form of process art—a way for the artist, who has been researching Otlet’s life and work for the past two years, to come to know him more intimately.
Springfield’s inclusion of drawn index entries is in part a comment on the limitations of classification systems to effectively illuminate their subject matter. The entry on Otlet—which takes us through his life from birth to death and is not accompanied by a diagram—fails to really tell us who he was, though one cannot help but feel Otlet himself would have been pleased with such an obituary. The object-ness of Springfield’s works, its display of nostalgia for old technologies and old systems is important. After all, would Springfield's diagrams be quite so stunning if created not in luminous silver pencil but in Photoshop?
The exhibition is a reflection on how we use technology to archive and preserve things as well as what we lose along the way. The show’s title, Springfield suggests, is “preposterously grandiose,” asking us to what extent we can master knowledge. She brings to mind the life of the document in the archive: Her diagrams are the endpoint of numerous media migrations in the journey—from analog (Otlet’s own drawings) to digital (as these drawings are scanned and published in books) to analog again (re-created in pencil). She also includes a meticulously drawn version of an essay she wrote about Otlet for the online magazine Triple Canopy, showing her editor’s tracked changes. This is an apt reminder of the ways in which all knowledge comes in edited form. In the end, Springfield shows that Otlet failed to ask the right question. Instead of, “How can we universalize and spread knowledge?” he should have been asking, “How can we interrogate what counts as knowledge?” Some 50 years after Otlet’s death, the Internet provided us an answer.
Molly Springfield at Thomas Robertello Gallery by Beth Capper.