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The forest of unread books: A future library in Norway

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

She was walking down the forest path with a roll of white cloth in her hands. It was trailing behind her like a long veil.

It was sweeping needles, leaves and soil lumps, drawing a pattern on the sandy pathway. The whiteness of the cloth contrasted with her black attire and the dark thick forest. As the path went up and down, the crowd following the woman at a distance would lose sight of her, only to see her again in a short while, like a white signpost.

Once the procession reached the clearing surrounded by old trees, the woman in black kneeled down in the centre. She began to wrap something with the cloth, already quite tatty after the walk. Her face was tense and her hands were shaking as she tried to tie up the bundle with a string. Eventually, she brought her emotions under control, tightened the knot, and held the bundle to her breast. The onlookers formed a circle around her, maintaining, however, a respectful distance. They didn’t want to disturb this intimate moment: a moment of farewell.

The people who gathered there to view the ceremony sat on the moss and May-dewed grass. They walked carefully, making sure not to trample on dozen-centimetre-tall spruce trees with red ribbons tied around their tops. One could already see this year’s bright green growths on the saplings.

The woman in black was the 49-year-old South Korean writer Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize 2016. The thing she wrapped with the white cloth was a manuscript. When the spruce saplings with red ribbons grow, they will become her book. It will happen, however, in the year 2114. Until then, for nearly 100 years, Kang’s manuscript, in a tatty cloth, will have remained hidden from public view. Neither the writer nor her 18-year-old son will live to see its publication. The onlookers who gathered that day in the Nordmarka forest in the hills outside of Oslo won’t bear witness to it either. ‘Future Library’ is being created for the generations to come, in the hope that in 100 years’ time humanity will still exist and want to read books.

Future Library is a project conceived by Scottish conceptual artist Katie Paterson. Each year, on the clearing where future books are growing, a writer selected by the Future Library Trust hands over their manuscript. Its content, form, volume and other details – except the title – will remain secret for 100 years. The first contributor who arrived in Oslo in 2014 was Margaret Atwood, renowned for her dystopian representations of the future. She was followed by British novelist David Mitchell, Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, Turkish author Elif Shafak and, in 2019, Han Kang. The next contributor is Karl Ove Knausgård, who will hand over his manuscript on the forest clearing in May 2020. From among all the writers, he will have the shortest distance to cover to get there: he is a Norwegian, born in Oslo and still living there. There is space for 94 more authors.

59°59’10.0 N 10°41’48.6 E

Take Line no. 1 (T-bane) in downtown Oslo. While still within the city limits, the train goes above ground and up the hills overlooking both the fjord and the capital. At the end of the line, Frognerseteren station, follow the signs to the restaurant. Once there, follow the forest road lined with streetlights – in winter-time they light up the cross-country skiing route. After a slightly more than kilometre-and-a-half-long walk, enter a much narrower and steeper path. It is the start of the trail that climbs up to Frønsvollen hill. After 100 metres, you will see a sign in both English and Norwegian: ‘Future Library Forest’ / ‘Framtidsbibliotekskogen.’ You are here.

A forest
of unread books
growing over 100 years

Katie Paterson didn’t expect her idea to turn into something more than three lines of text in the haiku-like form: that is how she tends to note down her project-related thoughts. Future Library has become, however, a large-scale undertaking; or, perhaps, it is still becoming one since there seems to be no form that could contain the project that unfolds over 100 years.

“I began by drawing rings,” she tells me. “I would draw tree’s growth rings, imagining each to be a subsequent book chapter. I was pondering the relations between the tree and the book, the forest and the library – their interfusion. As I immersed myself in thoughts, I would doodle more rings on the sheets of paper.”

Paterson is 38 years old. Her art often engages with the cosmos and brings to mind scientific research projects, like her map of the sky with 27,000 dead stars or clocks that tell the time on different planets. Some of her artworks – for instance the bulb that emits the light of a full moon, or the spinning wheel that contains all the colours of the universe – were created in collaboration with scientists and engineers. She even invited the European Space Agency (ESA) to one of her projects. They helped her return to space a Campo del Cielo meteorite, which had travelled through our solar system for 4.5 billion years before it fell to Earth. Recently, NASA has expressed their wish to collaborate with her. One might look at Paterson through the prism of the places where she has exhibited: Tate Britain, Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, or Turner Contemporary. This doesn’t make much sense, however, since what is equally important are her open-air projects, located far from famous galleries. One fine example is “Hollow”an installation in the grounds of University of Bristol, which is composed of 10,000 wood pieces, each from different tree species from all parts of the world. Another project invites people to go to the beach and make sand replicas of the most famous mountains. Participants are provided with special Kilimanjaro- or Stromboli-shaped molds, and when the high tide washes their replicas away, they might ponder time and transience, which also come to mind in the context of Future Library.

“Immediately after receiving the invitation to become a writer for Future Library, I imagined the world one hundred years from now. The world a long time after I myself have died, when my child, however long they manage to hold on to life, will likely no longer exist, and neither will any of the ones I love, any of the human beings who are living and breathing together with me on the Earth in this moment. It was a frighteningly lonely image to conjure. But, cutting across that desolateness, I kept on imagining. Imagining the world one hundred years from now which, since even in this moment time is owing without fail, will arrive as an inevitable reality. The trees of the forests around Oslo, that will grow thick and dense in those hundred years. The leaves and branches of spring, the afternoon sunlight that will shine down on them. The evenings and cold, still nights that will come without fail,” said Han Kang quietly, standing in the centre of the clearing, surrounded by the spruce trees that will become books, and one of them – her book.

To understand how much can change over the coming century, imagine that in May 1914 – 100 years before the first manuscript was handed over to Future Library – the Great War hadn’t broken out yet. It turned out to be the First World War, as 25 years later humankind decided to prove that it is capable of even more horrendous acts. Soon, such terms as the Holocaust, D-Day, or Little Boy came into use. People didn’t even dream of the internet or mobile phones, not to mention mobile phones with internet access. It wasn’t until 1926 that Henry Ford started to close his factories over Saturdays and Sundays, thus introducing the idea of the ‘weekend’. In most European countries, women were granted suffrage after 1918. In the US, the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920. It wasn’t until 1964 that the US abolished racial segregation. 100 years is a very long time.

“Sometimes I imagine the world in the year 2114. I guess that the most optimistic scenario is the one in which no radical changes take place; the one in which everything stays almost exactly the same, with minor differences only,” says Paterson.

The curators decided to equip Future Library with a printing press and instruction manual in case 100 years from now humans lose their ability to produce paper books (provided, of course, that humankind survives). On the eve of Han Kang’s manuscript handover, an informal dinner for Future Library’s friends was held in a theatre in Oslo. At this small event, attended by slightly over 40 international guests, Anne Beate Høvind, the project technical director, entered the stage and discussed some unexpected practical problems. As she explained, the presses intended for industrial printing are not supposed to be turned off. “Once switched on, the machine operates continuously. When switched off, especially for a long time, it starts to rust,” she clarified and added, smiling: “The printing problem hasn’t been solved then. Well, I’m going to worry about it later, in about 10 years…”

Overpowered by emotions, Han Kang didn’t come to dinner. On the following day, she admitted to having a moment of doubt as to whether to condemn her book, the writing of which took such an immense effort, to a 95-year-long oblivion. Kang has a delicate voice. When she speaks, it is as if she was whispering. She seems fragile and shy, yet in her works she deals with the thorniest issues.

Kang’s most recent work, published in English under the title White Book, is an attempt to confront her own history. The narrator is her older sister, whom she never got to know since she died only two hours after birth. Their parents said that if she had survived, they wouldn’t have decided to have more children. When Kang’s mother was pregnant with her, she seriously considered having an abortion. The idea for the book, in which each chapter is a description of something white, was conceived far from Kang’s hometown, but close to the editorial office of “Przekrój”. She was working on it during a four-month residency at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Oriental Studies. Although she felt lonely and isolated, since she didn’t know the local language, she took to Warsaw at first (and liked it “till November”, as she emphasized). She enjoyed strolling around the Łazienki Park, but the ubiquitous remnants of World War II kept haunting her. She was thinking about destruction and reconstruction, and realized that her sister’s spirit was part of her. And since for her the colour white represents both life and death, she decided to hold a roll of white cloth during the manuscript handover ceremony in the Nordmarka forest.

“On the one hand, it felt like a wedding ceremony, with the cloth as a veil. It was a wedding of the book and the forest. On the other hand, it seemed like a ceremony celebrating the birth of a child, in this case a new book. At the same time, I had a strong impression that it was a funeral, with the cloth as a mourning dress: the funeral of my book,” observed Kang.

At the ceremony, Kang, almost whispering, shared her dimly optimistic vision of the future: “And the moment I eventually write the first sentence; I have to believe in the world one hundred years from now. In the uncertain possibility that there will still be human beings who have survived, and who will read what I write. I have to hope that human history will not yet have vanished as a phantom, that this planet will not have become a huge ruin or grave of humans. It is a hope whose foundation is shaky, like the assumption that the people who run this project, and the writers of the present and future, who will die and be born in the course of the next hundred years, will continue this work as though carrying embers forward. Yet I have to believe, even in the tenuous possibility that a paper book’s fate will be to survive long enough to reach the world one hundred years from now.”

The story of Future Library is not only a story about faith and hope, but also fear. If predictions prove correct, in 2114 those humans who have survived will be too busy fighting for water or habitable land to think about an art project that dates back 100 years. According to the Australian think tank National Centre for Climate Restoration (Breakthrough), so many regions will become inhabitable around 2050 that great masses of people will have to move, nations will dissolve, and the world order as we know it today will collapse. Over a billion people will be forced to migrate and two billion will have limited access to water.

The coming of the Anthropocene, the epoch in which human actions exert an impact on natural processes, has been discussed for almost 100 years. Although the term itself hasn’t been officially recognized yet, the Anthropocene doesn’t seem to care much. One million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, glaciers are melting, and the temperature is rising regardless of the fact that the term hasn’t been accepted.

Half a century ago we landed on the moon. We boasted about being able to see from there a man-made artefact: the Great Wall of China. It turned out not to be true: the Great Wall is too narrow to be seen from the Moon with a naked eye. We can see from space, however, Dubai’s artificial palm-shaped archipelago for the rich, Almeria’s greenhouses with roofs made of white plastic (which cover an area half the size of Warsaw), open-pit mines, the cutting-down of the Amazon Rainforest, the illuminated India–Pakistan border, and the earliest evidence of the Anthropocene: the Pyramids of Giza. It isn’t necessary to fly into space, however, to see what is happening on the Earth. 18 of the 19 hottest summers – those with the highest average temperatures – have been reported since 2001, with 2016 as the warmest year on record. This data is provided by NASA, but the numbers given by Climatic Research Unit and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are almost the same. In their October 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) alerted us that there are 12 years left to prevent the catastrophe. 12 wasted months later there are 11 years left, and the clock is ticking…

Paterson claims, however, that Future Library makes her optimistic: “It is the forest that has such an effect on me. Whenever I’m there, I’m reminded of how old it is. Primeval forests are beyond time – when humans enter them, it is as if they travelled into the distant past. Hopefully, the forest we planted will be like that as well: the saplings on the clearing will grow as tall as the trees surrounding them. My optimism is tempered, of course, when I see what happens to our planet. I know that a lot of my projects immediately bring to mind climate change. This is also true for Future Library. I’m perfectly aware that the Earth is in horrific crisis, but it is not the struggle against the crisis that should define my art. My goal is to stir people’s imagination. I’m interested in the entanglements and interfusions. The forest is turned into paper, the paper into a book, the book into a library, which, in turn, connects future readers with the authors who lived in the past. Future Library is mostly a project about time. It has to do with the environment and ecology as well, of course, but I’m not vain enough to claim that I can change the world through art.”

Nevertheless, she does change something. While you’re reading this text, the manuscripts are held in a safe in Oslo Public Library, Deichmanske Bibliotek. Han Kang’s new work lies next to the oldest book in the collection: a handwritten manuscript of the Vulgate bible of Aslak Bolt, written in 1250. Next year, the library will relocate to a new facility situated next to the famous Oslo Opera House in the Bjørvika neighbourhood, which has been undergoing urban redevelopment, or rather, has been built from scratch. Bjørvika – until recently an industrial port area – in now a modern neighbourhood, characterized by steel and glass design. The final touches are now being put on office and apartment buildings. The Opera House, the new Munch Museum and the new library are meant to be the flagships of this revamped neighbourhood, situated by the fjord.

On the top floor of the new library, which will be fully operational by spring 2020, there will be a room made from wood. In this specially-designed room there will be 100 removable drawers, where manuscripts will be kept. Those which already hold manuscripts will be delicately illuminated. Each author will be able to choose their drawer. Han Kang was the first to chose. Other writers who have already handed over their manuscripts will come back to Oslo and have their pick.

As Paterson explains: “The room is made from the trees cut down in the Nordmarka forest to plant new trees for Future Library. Manuscripts will be safe there. As for the forest itself… well, there is not much we can do. Ideally, we should leave it alone.”

It is not a coincidence that this project was developed in Oslo. It is, in fact, a municipal project: the only person who could officially accept Han Kang’s manuscript is the mayor of the capital of Norway—Marianne Borgen. Only in Scandinavia can a high-ranking official show up on the forest clearing, get there on foot and without security, and instead of turning their speech into a rally, thank previous generations of politicians, who 120 years ago decided that Nordmarka should be under protection and that it should be the people’s forest.

In 2018, electric cars accounted for over 49% of all new cars bought in Norway. The government exempted their owners from the car tax and the 25% VAT, while Oslo city council waived parking fees and congestion charges. This exemplifies how systemic solutions are far more effective than individual spurts. Which doesn’t mean, however, that you, Dear Reader, should go back to using plastic straws or drinking water from plastic bottles, waiting for politicians to tackle the climate crisis.

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Future Library is one of the projects that accompanies the redevelopment of the Bjørvika neighbourhood. As Høvind clarifies: “The city council announced a competition for public art projects that engage with the nature of time.” A few steps away from the Opera House, you can also find the Losæter city farm. On this quite big plot of land, local people grow vegetables and fruit. There are chickens roaming around the rows and a beautiful arc-shaped bakery made from wood and glass. The city employs a farmer who takes care of the land, relying on traditional agricultural methods. This project was conceived by the American artist Amy Franceschini. The room of unread books is not far from the farm.

Paterson expresses her hope that “future generations will somehow benefit from the project.” “These are just books,” she says, “but they show that we think about those who haven’t been born yet. They demonstrate that not all of us want them to inherit nothing but havoc and devastation.”

Høvind also imagines the world 100 years from now: “I’ll be dead … that’s all I know. I’m scared, but I do whatever I can because of a sense of great duty. I believe that we need projects rooted in cathedral thinking,” she explains.

‘Cathedral thinking’ is a term that applies to projects that don’t unfold over years, but over generations. It is thinking and designing in a non-egotistical way, where the satisfaction is derived from the process itself, not the final result. As its name suggests (and as those who haven’t come across the term before can quickly infer), cathedral thinking has its roots in the Middle Ages and the building of cathedrals. The idea and its execution were separated by hundreds of years, and subsequent generations continued to work on the same design. The builders knew they would never witness the final effect of their work. At that time, such future-oriented thinking was motivated by the desire to secure one’s place in heaven. Today we need it to make heaven on Earth. Or, at least, to escape hell.

Cathedral thinking optimistically assumes that the future matters, stoically forcing us to ponder the meaning of life and the passing of time. “I’m sure I won’t have a chance to read the books collected in Future Library, but this young boy here… who knows?” Paterson points at her son, who is sitting on her lap. “His life is still being measured in months, not years. He is intimately related to this project. I was in the forest while pregnant – back then spruce saplings hardly protruded above the ground. Last year we went there together again, and I had to carry him around. This year he was the loudest participant of the ceremony. He will be growing together with the forest.”

Han Kang closed her speech on the Nordmarka forest clearing with the following words: “If it is possible to call prayer the moment when, in spite of all the uncertainty, we have to take just one step towards the light, in this moment I feel that perhaps this project is something close to a century-long prayer.” She could reveal only one fact about her book: its title. “My Dear Son, My Love,” she whispered.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska.

Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.


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