Molly Springfield’s show at Thomas Robertello Gallery, titled “The Proto-History of the Internet,” isn’t really about the Internet. In actuality, the conceptual drawings, quizzical icons, and indexical paragraphs on view serve as obscure guide-posts pointing the way to broader dilemmas about the production of knowledge.
The show is challenging by design. As viewers, we’re privy to certain facts while others are intentionally withheld. Dry diagrams and hand-drawn bibliographic pages – information systems designed to provide clarity – become ambiguous signs when presented out of context. After an initial sweep of the work on display, I found myself wondering, “What is this all about?”
Springfield’s drawings are full of fragmented information about information, but contain only a few clues about what that information means. Near the front of the gallery there is a document that thoroughly divulges the back-story of the show’s content: during the 1920’s and 30’s a little known Belgian bibliographer named Paul Otlet created what in hind-sight could be considered an analog version of the Internet. Much like the modern architects of the World Wide Web, Otlet’s grand utopic dream was to consolidate all the information in the world into a vast cross-reference system available for public use. The millions of index cards he amassed – a collection called the Mundaneum – was an important step in the progress of modern information science.
Knowing Otlet’s story, which is absolutely a meaningful focal point for a show dealing with the language of information, is only a fraction of the multi-faceted engagement brought on by Springfield’s carefully plotted signal interference. In this show, confusion arguably elicits greater potential than knowledge.
In one of six poster-sized drawings, a pyramidal diagram vaguely reminiscent of the food pyramid is depicted between two rectangles rendered to look like sheets of paper. The drawing is titled La Pyramide des Bibliographies (2012) yet the schematic pyramid itself, which is segmented into six distinctly patterned sections, arrests comprehension. In actuality, it is a partial reproduction of a diagram created by Otlet himself, yet there is no indication within the drawing revealing that connection. Like the thousands of info-graphics we encounter in textbooks, newspapers, on the sides of cereal boxes, and any where else humans use instantly legible diagrams meant to offer tidy bits of data, the pyramid is familiar though also uncanny given that crucial points of context have been intentionally left out. Equally puzzling are the two rectangles in the corners of the drawing. One looks like a blank sheet of paper; an empty vessel where information normally lives. The other is a hand-drawn reproduction of an index page with headings in bold titled “International Institute of Bibliography” and “International Museum.” Again the viewer is confronted with a familiar device typically used to provide information to anyone aware of how a reference system is organized. But without knowing the original source of these references, the Kafka-esque gulf between information and comprehension emerges once more. What begins to swirl within this void is an awareness of the shortcomings of systems of signs designed for broad understanding.
The genius of Springfield’s calculated ambiguity is that it effectively guides viewers toward certain realizations about what is lost when information gets systematized and homogenized.
This use of incomplete diagrams as displaced signs harkens back to certain Dadaist methods of confounding logic and challenging the efficacy of visual culture. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder (No. 1) (1913), the odd figures in works such as L’Action du Centre Modial (2011), an image in which radiating lines converge at increasingly large disks like sideways flying saucers beaming toward the mother ship, are more like signs for themselves than meaningful referents. The job of creating value out of these quizzical images becomes the responsibility of the viewer. Springfield offers just enough to stymie the mind as well as open the door to new pathways of significance. Here, comprehension is exposed as a leap of faith.
In Track Changes (2012), language’s ability to effectively convey the thoughts and feelings of human beings is brought into question. In this piece, Springfield has meticulously reproduced an edited page from an article she wrote about Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum for Triple Canopy. Duplicating the style of Microsoft Word’s editing program, the piece tracks not only the history of revisions made to the article – distilling the most relevant aspects of Otlet’s story into an acceptable narrative – but also a competing dialogue between two individuals seeking to refine the imperfections of written communication. Here, history and comprehension are arrived at through compromise; a process of subjects coming to weary agreement after a dual of elimination, giving credence to Duchamp’s proclamation: “As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”
The role of subjectivity within modern systems of information is explored directly through Springfield’s process of translation. In converting printed words and Xeroxed pages into graphite drawings, the artist is reinserting individuality and chance into the mechanical process of homogenizing information. Closer examination of the work presented reveals flaws in the reproduction of Times New Roman. However precise a drawing may appear, the hand of the artist is there to subvert perfection, much as the barriers of human perception will frequently trip up the utopian intentions of idealists – past and present – who set out to universalize knowledge. Fortunately, Springfield is here to remind us that these barriers are also the launching pad for creative achievement.