“Selling my library” by Rainer Ganahl
Presented as part of Performa 15 at Kai Matsumiya
November 14th and 15th (2-8pm) 
In conjunction with Philip Metten's exhibition

  " I’m selling my library. Yes. I am.  

Finally, I am getting rid of all my books. I decide to do so in form of a low cost art work with no price increase above the projected remaining value of my used books. Adding a stamp to the books that lists my name and the title of the dispersing piece hopefully increases the chance of a better home, a better afterlife for these old paper beings. Speaking of after life, the surprise encounter with my own former library raised immediately the question of my own demise since I just went through dissolving my father’s stuff after his passing.

This was my very first quit existentialist reaction that surprised me when confronted with these banana boxes of books and stuff that withstood time, bad storage conditions and all kind of relocations. As a child stamp collector, a photographer, a trained historian, a perpetual student of the history of ideas, an art collector of sorts, an artist in charge of storing his own art works, letting an early crucial part of library just go with which I spent most of my time, thinking and intellectual love and hopes as a very young and growing person is not an easy job. It breaks my heart but translating this liquidation into money and art sweetens this painful act of letting go. The fate for most of these books is now sealed and is called technically deaccession.

In 1990, when I moved to New York I had to leave most of my books in Vienna and eventually had to box them away for quite a long time. For about 15 years, I was able to sublet the apartment in a way that allowed me to leave an entire wall of books untouched so that I could visit it about once or twice a year for a very limited amount of time. Over the years, I sensed that something became very whimsical about my treatment of these books because there was a class of books I simply couldn’t touch properly. They all shared the fact that I spent an intense time deciphering them while at university where I read mostly in horizontal position. These mostly philosophical non-fictional texts published primarily by Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft were worked hard on. I didn’t even dare to take them with me to New York as I was afraid the entire library could collapse. They had no commercial or bibliophile value but represented the world to me, by then already a past world I couldn’t tinker with. I rather went out and bought a new copy for my new home in New York City.

During my first ten years in New York City, the flow of books was also reversed. On my visits to Vienna, I carried as many books from New York as I could which I read over the years and intuitively thought to facelift my Viennese wall that more and more became in absentia a lifeless abstract portrait of me, one - as time was passing - was less and less representing me. In New York City, where I often moved places with all my stuff fitting shopping trolley carts, the status of my books also changed. Even though I was spending months and months on individual books be it with texts by Jacque Lacan, Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton etc. , I didn’t need to see the actually read books physically anymore. During my two years at the Whitney Independent Study Program, I predominantly was carrying photocopies of book fragments given to us. My orientation towards visual culture and my experience of living out of bags instigated a sense of rejection and even ridicule for books on walls. Now, here at home in NYC, books are in my closets, my dresser rooms, my shoe room, in my storage spaces and hidden away with only a row of fine art books next to my bed where nobody has access to. 

When I finally lost my rent stabilized Viennese apartment storage of my booksbecame also an economic problem. To my astonishment, my books posed a big problem since I felt attached and I had to break up the library which made accessing the books nearly impossible. In the meantime, technological changes, online distribution and sales options helped to render the loss of my books nearly irrelevant. Those stacks of books I brought to New York had also a kind of smell that kept them rather boxed away even here. Only a certain few jewels I purchased actually in New York from Printed Matter or from other by now disappeared art book sellers which I first schlepped to Vienna, I unpacked back here and let them harmonize with the air. The air quality of all these stacks of books contributes slightly to my nocturnal asthma and produces nightmares and other suffocating dreams on a regular basis. Only yesterday, I found myself expelled from a driftsand cauchemar at 4 am and early Vito Acconci, General Idea, Futurism, Bruce Nauman, Documenta 6, 7, 8, catalogues next to meters of publications I accumulated over the last decades attested my existence. I was still alive.  

I don’t want to dispute the beauty and power of actual books over its on line versions. And even if I purchased the same book twice I missed the earlier version with my remarks, my underlining, and all the traces of handling and reading. I also left all kind of small inserts, including money, Polaroid photos, invoices, notes, to do lists, shopping scribbles and hand written letters to mention just a few of the surprises I have come across so far. In his famous article “Unpacking my library,” Walter Benjamin writes mainly about collecting of valuable books, books that do not necessarily require any reading. He speaks of books auctions, travels and discoveries of special rare books at rare booksellers balancing that experience against choosing from catalog listings. He explicitly skips his time as a student, the handling of non-valuable common books for use, thus exactly ignoring the type of affection I have developed for my mostly low value items.

My few things of value or rarity I have sorted out earlier and carried again back to New York, a process that started already in 1997 when I finally settled down in an East Harlem apartment where I have been living since. So, the books for sale in question are the books that have not made it back to NYC or ended up in another location in Europe of mine. But there are still surprises that are worth the purchase and be it just that many common publications of the time which are by now unknown and might or might not hold the test of time. The pricing is adequate, and made, so that the books move even though I keep also an eye on various on line sellers including Amazon to see what other people ask for it. Last but not least, the books for sale are stamped saying “Selling my library, 1980 – 2000, 1931/2015. In 1931, Benjamin published his article written as distraction while re-concentrating, re-ordering, reinstalling his library. My article here is meant to explain a kind of material / immaterial artwork in which I stamp the books of my library away. My books for sale constitute the total physical dissipation, parting, leaving, dispersing of my library by waving the publications off into mostly unknown hands where they hopefully can start a new life.

In quite some cases I do still remember where I bought the books or from which bookshop I snatched them some decades ago. Half through my studies of philosophy and history, when I still also took French literature and art history, I was close to an Austrian guy and dated a German girl who both were big on shoplifting. I also was very infatuated with a particular fancy line by the Situationists who I encountered in the early 1980s when I lived in Paris with a psychiatric doctor who worked in a famous psychiatric clinic where Felix Guattari did most of his research. This very elegant, much older, super intellectual Jewish French Algerian man who loved discussing theory and politics into early mornings was the most prolific book thief I have ever encountered. His economic trickery was not a question of money since he had a good income that only took him for a couple of days a week outside Paris for his clinic. It was more of an enigmatic problem, some cathexis with knowledge and books that rendered it very appealing. This all initiated me as well into that dancing art of refusal: “Le bon usage du choix commence avec le refus de payer / The good use of choice starts with the refusal to pay.”

My new vastly expended access to books at a time of no internet and almost no money was for me a major game changer and facilitated my education with a large spectrum of French, English and German books that could never have been available otherwise. There left barely any good bookshops unvisited around Europe since rapid, often overnight hitch hiking between cities and countries became my mode of flânerie. This beneficiary effect, as ethically unmoral as it was, served me then as a guilt free internal justification for something that cannot be universalized in a Kantian manner. I even went as far as to translate my non-monetary acquisition into an act of collective responsibility since I understood my individual learning and study efforts as collective work benefiting society and adding to the common good of all of us. It therefore also took me a couple of years, all sorts of really embarrassing encounters with authorities and the looming threat of a possible deportation from the USA should I not be able to renounce this stressful mode of resourcing and imagined, dreamed up collectivization. Luckily and under difficulties that looked to me comparable to those of people with substance abuse, I was able to break the poetic spell of this détournement of the banal seductiveness of commercial phrases. I totally quit this bad habit in 1990 and do not encourage it or propagate it today. My abstinence came as cold turkey and just in time for my relocation to New York, a place that in court, wouldn’t really differentiate much between a newspaper or a fur coat confronted with these characteristic violations of an exchange based acquisition.

Hence, letting the books go again as a low cost artwork without barely any added economic surplus value should also be a faible, a weak gesture of an abstract compensation for those books that were never paid for but nonetheless had helped me enormously. Finally, and also embarrassing, I want to point out, during those times, I felt entitled to this childlike taking of books I made disappear from bookshops throughout Europe by twisting Marxist arguments without really living up to their consequences since I glued to the books and did not pass them on. This is now to change with the releasing of my collected bibliophile accumulations, even thought I’d rather name myself a capitalist and invite people to take up my artistic proposition that comes at a minimum price of 10 Euros. This prize minimum functions here not only as an envisioned small compensation for a perceived loss on my part but also as a protection against additional city trash for those who don’t take me up on my offered auratic markings of these stamped books.

If the artistic aura of these books for sale works and releases its twitters, songs and games, the books will not only be rescued from trash, oblivion, and irrelevance but also from contemporary digitalization of all information, content and its dissemination throughout the world. And should this work, the immaterial power of these disappearing books as an art practice will hopefully reconnect complex genealogies throughout specific moments of personal and collective histories and even enlarge them as Benjamin points out in his talk about collecting. We should also not forget, it did matter to us non-paying customers when suddenly, in the mid 1980s, larger bookshops started securing their stock with electronic security strips and large cameras or camera dummies hanging over book corridors and corners, a fashion quickly adapted by nearly every bookshop which in itself speaks volumes of a changing information based consumer society. Hence, buying such a piece – and I purchased a few books from the library of Andy Warhol, when it was for sale – might stimulate a new collector with all kind of ideas and questions and bring him/her back to a computer to look for more. Buyers/collectors might unlock the stories, its context and its people involved. Thus, it could start or complement a collection of books or art and go with and against the digital flux of our time. This, we might name today the fânerie of things, a meandering of ideas, stories and connections dragging along the open and secret lives of books and things even after my disappearance. 

I wish anybody in possession of such a volume a good time and wonder whether it will ever enter a secondary market. By then, I guess I will most likely have disappeared.

New York City, April 2015


psps: The original title by Benjamin is called: "Ich packe meine Blbliothek aus - Eine Rede über das Sammeln " und is now printed in the volume DENKBILDER ( S. 388) . The english translation is "Unpacking my library. - A talk about Collecting" . It woudln t be me, if I d get the title right - hence there is this diviation in the stamp syaing only - Unpacking THE library ... skipping the my ... ... though it took me months to realized.. i am still deciding whether i am changing the stamp and change it to SELLING MY LIBRARY."