The Marginalia Archive by Brandon Brown
Until seeing Molly Springfield’s The Marginalia Archive, I had never considered how profoundly marginalia reflects our deep anxieties about order and chaos in our fantasies of mechanical reproduction. Each of the show’s three formal manifestations—the archive, drawings, and performance—countervails the systematic technologies we’ve developed to make supposedly perfect copies. From the multiple, identical printings of a book to the ostensible guarantee of the Xerox, Springfield’s work, like marginal notes themselves, disrupts what we’ve come to think of as methods of perfect replication.
The Marginalia Archive is an ongoing project that collects such notes from participants’ personal libraries.Springfield explores a formal tension between her clinical organization and documentation of these specimens and the wild interventions of the personal with which they are imbued. After all, these inscriptions—ostensibly meant for no one but the inscriber—form the written record of a reader’s private encounter with the written word. Yet, when such encounters become public, whether in a used bookstore or in Springfield’s archive, it’s possible to see some exhibitionism in marginalia.
The works in The Marginalia Archive record the thoughts of a reader within a document already full of thoughts and maximalize its translations. Springfield documents each Xeroxed specimen of marginalia and files it in a black binder along with a participant information form. Each form inventories the name and occupation of a participant as well as a paragraph describing each specimen. This description is the third text associated with the specimen, and it functions as a commentary. It’s a commentary on a commentary. This proliferation of texts, with its emphasis on the participant’s information, successfully positions the marginalia as the central object, a position it can’t ever formally occupy otherwise. Marginalia by definition cannot ever take up the center of a page, but it frequently is a subject that provokes a latent voyeurism.
Part of why marginalia challenges the ideal of perfect reproduction is that a book is often considered a closed object. In cultures marked by the primacy of writing, the text is assumed to be immutable. And yet, the finality of the text can be challenged by the corrupting interference of a reader’s pen. To emphasize this penetration of the text by the unpredictable irruption of the reader, Springfield enlarges several of The Marginalia Archive’s forms and specimens by reproducing them in pencil on large pieces of paper. Nothing about encountering these drawn pieces feels like looking at a Xerox: they are clearly the products of a human hand attending to the handwriting of another person. These enlargements function as a fourth text in the archive: Springfield’s take on the inscriber’s take on her marginalia on a given text. The show affirms the centrality of our most private desires and the tendency of those desires to find a language—even in a form that resists manipulation.
Just like the thoughts that readers can’t help but jot down in the white border of a page, the materials of The Marginalia Archive leak out in these large-scale pencil drawings. The large triptych Sleeping on the Wing (2012) collects three fragments of the poet Bill Berkson’s marginalia on Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same title. Indices (2012) is more difficult to identify with the appropriate specimen of the archive, but its use of arrows and symbols are similar to Sleeping on the Wing. Marginalia are some of the most personal forms of writing—almost individual languages—and so, despite a viewer’s recognition, only the writer of the marginalia can know the final difference between the symbols of a star and a right-pointing arrow. If we approach this meta-text with the same assumptions of communicability as we do the primary text, we are forced to engage with enigma.
Such an enigma is most dramatic in the stunning Manicule (2012). The manicule is a symbol that looks like a pointing hand and was a very early mimetic punctuation mark used primarily in marginalia. In Springfield’s triptych, a drawing depicts a specimen of marginalia on a corner of Horace’s first Ode. The marginalia’s text reads “TRY HERE” with a drawn arrow pointing towards the Latin verse. The act of reading Manicule is an exercise in doubled frustration: the drawing ruthlessly excises Horace’s poem, and the marginal text is itself more poetic than discursive. The imperative is presumably directed at the author of the marginalia herself, but it’s an imperative that offers few clues as to what it demands. The huge, drawn hands that flank this centerpiece retranslate the manicule from a typographical representation of a human hand back to an image of the human hand, which is drawn, of course, by Springfield’s human hand. And the hands in Manicule have the unmistakable look of a hand pressed under the lid of a photocopier.
Both The Marginalia Archive exhibition and the archive itself have a permeable quality that will remain after the show closes at Steven Wolf Fine Arts. On the day of the show’s opening, Springfield was in the gallery for several hours, accepting new submissions for the archive. And while there’s nothing new about an artist directly engaging the viewing public, this performance points to the archive’s autonomous existence beyond the time and space of the gallery. This part of the exhibit is participatory but under the strictest of ground rules: however personal one’s specimen, its fate is to be Xeroxed and classified with all of the others. The long bravura of yellow Hi-Liter on the stoic characters of the printed page enters into this archive only via the gray-and-black landscape of the photocopier, and the newly affectless white page is doomed to be copied, ever after.