Charlie Macquarie is an artist and experimental librarian whose creative practice takes the form of the Library of Approximate Location — an ongoing itinerant project engaging with the confounding nature of environmental materiality and its disparate networks in the Western United States through the installation of site-specific libraries. He is the digital archivist at the University of California, San Francisco, and is a library research fellow and librarian in residence at the Prelinger Library, as well as one half of PLACE TALKS — a series of lectures and creative projects of location-based inquiry. For his Frontier Fellowship he installed two digital libraries inside vernacular sculptures around the vicinity of Green River.
This Library is a collection of moments, pieces, glances, and possibilities. It is incomplete, as all collections are. It is about the future, in so much as the future is always found in the past. It is messy, sometimes insignificant, non-linear, and difficult to digest, much like most places are, when you get down into them. It evolved after wandering around town and talking to people, driving dirt roads and wondering, and even just clicking around on the internet.
Nancy Dunham told me that they have their own time in Green River. Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower. 'We’ve got a lot of mysteries out here' she said, 'I feel them every day.'
Perhaps this could be said of any place. An understanding of place should be incomplete, and should include the messy, insignificant, and non-linear parts. In fact perhaps it should be made up mostly of these parts. This is why I think there is promise in presenting documentation simply as documentation — without interpretation. This is part of the promise of Libraries too. Through a quasi-intentional stewardship, connections we didn’t think to look for reveal themselves. Answers become reframed as questions — a new discovery in the records. The future, moving forward out of the past, might begin to become clearer in some areas, and more murky in others. There are a lot of mysteries out here.
But more than just collecting, there is promise in the practice of sharing too. While collecting books to inform this library, and digital documents to populate it, I kept think of Ursula Le Guin — “Giving involves a good deal of discrimination; as a business it requires a more disciplined intelligence than keeping. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”
Le Guin said this in relation to utopia, and specifically in relation to the persistent failures of white, masculine, progress and technologically driven versions of utopia that have characterized the development of much of the western United States. “It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped,” she said, “like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth.” I’m interested in this because I’m interested in utopia, because it seems to me that so many of our activities — community-development organizations, church groups, pioneer migrations, irrigated agriculture, national parks, running of rivers, libraries, nuclear power plants — are utopian at their core.
So is there a way to sidestep this utopian trap of development as given? The guidance offered by the porcupine in Le Guin’s telling is to “‘go backward, looking forward’ in order to speculate safely on the future.” The utopist, Le Guin suggests, might “do well to lose the plan, throw away the map, get off the motorcycle, put on a very strange-looking hat, bark sharply three times, and trot off looking thin, yellow, and dingy across the desert and up into the junipers” at the top of the book cliffs. This is all well and good, but do we want that? Here in Green River there are melons, and I’d rather eat those than juniper berries. Perhaps there are some appropriate technologies.
And if infrastructure development, extraction, technological advance, and colonial expansion have been the drivers of the development of much of the western United States, what would an alternative look like? While I’ve been at Epicenter I’ve learned more about the work of Samuel Mockbee and his “architecture of decency.” What would it look like to practice an information architecture of decency — a “slower internet” as my friend Sam Kronick has proposed? What would it look like to privilege the modest, vernacular infrastructures of sharing over the grand ones of accumulation and creation?
It might look like a library. It might look like the dark physical form of a repository of uranium tailings — a black pyramid — repurposed as a repository of community knowledge. It might look like economically irresponsible speculation, made from a place of emotional care, and resource stewardship. It might look like a town that has its own concept of time. It might look like a place where mystery — sweet yet difficult to control, like melon — is cultivated instead of eradicated.
I’ve been heartened by people’s reactions to this project, which could seem like a somewhat strange endeavor if you cut it that way — a digital library, shaped like a pyramid, at the end of a dirt-road, in the middle of the desert. But the concept of providing access at such a site has not seemed strange at all to the people I’ve come across. What a great idea, they keep saying.
Of course, perhaps the point is that the middle of the desert — the middle of nowhere — is always somewhere. It’s somewhere that matters to someone. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot while talking to people about the place they live.
Le Guin, speaking of the potential for a more durable utopia, sums it up well: “I have no idea who we will be or what it may be like on the other side, though I believe there are people there. If we, clambering up out of the abyss, ask questions of them, they won’t draw maps, alleging utter inability; but they may point. One of them might point in the direction of Green River, Utah. I live there, she says. See how beautiful it is!”
The Libraries can be found at:
38°58'24.5"N 110°06'46.4"W [38.973481, -110.112901] (Launch Facility magazine no. 2)
38°56'18.4"N 110°08'06.7"W [38.938444, -110.135185] (Crystal Geyser)