Art and Libraries *new series*
David Bunn: The Lost Poetry of Card Catalogs
By Alaina Sloo
You are a consumer
you are a data processor
you are a rainbow.
This is the sequence of titles you might have stumbled upon if you’d been flipping through the “You” title cards in the Los Angeles Central Library card catalog shortly before it was decommissioned in 1986.
If you were feeling humorous that day and you happened to be looking for something beginning with “S” you might have uncovered this bit of found poetry as you thumbed through the cards:
Sometimes a great notion
sometimes a hero
sometimes a little brain damage can help.
The pleasure of finding poetry in the library card catalog may be (mostly) a thing of the past, but artist David Bunn has preserved some of the poems in his ongoing work with the decommissioned card catalogs of the Los Angeles Central Library, the Liverpool Central Library, and several other institutions over the last 14 years.
Bunn’s work, particularly his work with the Los Angeles and Liverpool library catalogs in collections like I feel better now; I feel the same way (1996) and Here There and Everywhere (1997), gives us a glimpse of the experience of browsing a catalog through the eyes of one user (Bunn). The work offers us more than the whimsy of found poetry: it reveals some of the ways in which a catalog’s physical presence conveys meaning and the importance of chance associations in interpreting information.
Each poem is constructed by beginning at some point in the catalog (as any searcher might do) and reading the titles of the cards sequentially, leaving nothing out. In found poems like this one from the Liverpool Central Library,
It was like this
it was the nightingale
it was twenty years ago today.
we can see how accidental associations based on nothing more than alphabetical order become the primary lens for interpreting meaning. “It was like this” sets an elegiac tone for the story to come about a nightingale in some faraway yesterday, and I can’t help but think about the books themselves in this context, particularly since the additional descriptive information on the cards doesn’t contradict this interpretation. But perhaps you have another interpretation of this poem based on the influence of your own personal history? If you found those titles in the Liverpool card catalog, would you be thinking of Sgt. Pepper instead?
The cards give us other physical cues that we can see clearly in Bunn’s mounted works: worn corners and other signs of heavy use that tell the searcher, “you are not alone;” faded type that says “this is an old story;” cards that look bright and untouched, screaming “Look at me! Try me! I’m new!” These, too, are important sources of information, both for the searcher and for the reader of Bunn’s poems. In fact, perhaps more than anything else, it is the faded type on the “It was the nightingale” card that gives that poem its wistful tone.
The multiple meanings of words are a favorite plaything of Bunn’s found poetry, as in this chance sequence of titles from the Los Angeles card catalog which reveals a new vein of thought to someone innocently looking for information about early explorers.
After you, Columbus
after you, Magellan!
after you, Marco Polo
after you with the pistol.
Some of the poems are simply beautiful, rolling from card to card like a wave. If you came upon this poem as you stood in front of an open card catalog drawer, you’d probably be in a cheerful searching mood for the rest of the day.
The sea is a magic carpet
the sea is also a garden
the sea is for sailing
the sea is for sailing
the sea is strong.
Of course, every library has its own collection of poems, which changes along with the library’s collection. A September 26 title search of the online UW catalog reveals a different poem for “The sea is” with a lovely accidental structure.
The sea is all about us
The sea is all around
The sea is also a garden
The sea is awash with roses
The sea is blue
The sea is never full
The sea is red
The sea is strong
And one day, a new acquisition in Liverpool might have turned “After you, Columbus” into,
After you, Columbus.
After you, Magellan!
After you make brownies, try baked Alaska!
After you, Marco Polo.
After you with the pistol.
We may never again have a chance to construct found poetry while doing a
title search, but the poems aren't really lost. Bunn has collected the poems in books so that they can be returned to the libraries that made them. Each book (there are 15 so far) contains a selection of poems and copies of the catalog cards they are based on. As the Liverpool card catalog once said,
yesterday and today
yesterday and today
yesterday, and today, and forever.
David Bunn is a professor of photography at the University of Southern California School of Fine Arts. His work can be found in the collections of museums and libraries including the Whitney Museum of American Art (NY), Victoria & Albert Museum (London), J. Paul Getty Museum (LA), The Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York Public Library, Los Angeles Central Library, and the Liverpool Central Library. Bunn’s most recent exhibition, Subliminal Messages, examines the physical signs of human use on the cards themselves. It is now showing at the Brooke Alexander in New York.
David Bunn will also be a panelist at a Seattle Public Library event called “Mining the Library: A Panel Discussion on how artists use the library.” It will be on October 21 st from 6-9pm at the Seattle Central Library. It will be “ an exclusive opportunity to hear a panel of notable and distinguished visual artists discuss how they utilize the library as muse and artistic medium.” Contact the central library for more information.