There was a time in the history of Victoria when the state collections of printed material, visual art and natural history artifacts were housed together under one roof. Of that early grouping only the State Library (SLV) remains in place, the gallery and museum collections relocated to new premises in the 1960s and early 2000s respectively. There is, I think, a lot to be said about this dispersal, more than is likely to feature in a standard historical account of the individual institutions. One such thing is the expressive role architecture has played in individuating the collections and, while one runs the risk of over-determining both its expression and role, I find it hard not to read the architecture of the buildings as frames for the thought of the collections themselves, the collections as thought. For the Museum, this amounts to reading its glass façade as a metaphor for the demystifying transparency of empirical observation; for the Gallery, the monumental bluestone shell of NGV International serves as an emblem for a cool, detached modernism.1 That both architectural styles mark a clear break with the nineteenth century classicism of the Library suggests that whatever it was that once fostered a presumed homogeneity between the collections has been replaced over the course of the past century by growing recognition of their heterogeneity.
Ross Coulter’s 10,000 Paper Planes project is a latecomer to this story, framed, as it is, by the domed ceiling of the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. The project began in late February 2011 when Coulter — as the recipient of a Georges Mora Foundation fellowship — with the help of volunteers, commenced folding 10,000 pieces of A3 paper into a variety of custom-tweaked paper planes and peaked on March 14 when 165 volunteers participated in a choreographed launch of the planes from the balconies of the Reading Room. The launch was filmed by multiple video cameras placed at strategic locations on the floor of the Reading Room and, while it was not known exactly what would become of the footage or the paper planes after the event, Coulter offered a promissory note that both would reappear in the form of a screen and paper-based sculptural installation at some point in the near future in a yet to be determined location. Promissory notes aside, the launch of the planes on the 14th was, within the overall design of the project, a stand-alone event, if not fully a performance piece.
There are various reasons why the State Library was an ideal setting for the project: as Coulter informed me, many years ago while working as an attendant in the photocopy room, he slipped into the Reading Room after the library had closed and launched a paper plane from one of the upper-level balcony landings. There can be little doubt that what prompted Coulter’s actions was the height of the balcony and the cavernous quality of the space below, but it is interesting to note that what impressed him on that occasion were not just the aesthetic qualities of the plane gliding through space, but also the rebelliousness of the act. The architecture of the Reading Room plays a subtle, but important, role in this story in so far as the room demonstrates an example of panoptic design, whereby rows of workbenches are positioned under the gaze of a central viewing point.2 Originally intended as a seat for a watchful librarian, this position was occupied during the launch of the planes by an automated RED camera that filmed the choreographed release of planes in spiral motion from the upper to the lower levels. It is an arrangement that makes any simple or straightforward reading of the camera’s gaze difficult, in so far as it severs the legislative gaze from any classical notion of authority and supplants it instead with a permissive attitude; one that institutions such as the State Library have chosen to adopt in the face of a postmodern injunction to include everyone and everything as part of their mission. The idea that paper planes do not belong in a public institution such as a library under any circumstances no longer fits with the mission and mandate of such an institution. The question of what belongs in the institution is not one that can be resolved by analysing the thing in itself, but rather by judging it as it is put to use, for what purpose and when.
It is a situation that some will find uneasy, since it suggests that the role of the institution in the production and creation of knowledge has transformed from one of bestowing approval and setting limits to one that is defined only negatively as a lassitude or concession to the public will. Responding to an announcement about the project in a SLV / George Mora Foundation Fellowship press release, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt represented this unease in the following way: ‘once the greatest acts of creativity in a library involved actually opening the books at some stage to engage with the thoughts therein’. Bolt concludes his incendiary blog by questioning Coulter’s motivation and his understanding of his own rebellious experience: ‘a rebellion against what? Reading? Knowledge? Thought?’3 To register this unease correctly is to recognise that one inhabits a situation in which rebellion seems always fated to fail not because it is panoptically suppressed, but because the boundaries against which one intended to push have lost all fixity. This situation is the necessary fate of any and all panoptic structures under the conditions of post-modernity; compelled, on the one hand, to condone everything that enters their institutional purview and subsequently exposed to criticism from without by the public fact of this condition. Caught between the permissive authority of the institution and the conservatism of (at least some) members of the public, we find that we are no longer able to say in advance what will count as rebellion.
This does not amount to saying that the possibility of acting rebelliously is exhausted. Rather, it suggests that, if and when it does occur, we run the risk of misrecognising it and, by doing so, failing to live out its consequences. Earlier, I sketched out a terrain in which 10,000 Paper Planes might prove consequential as a belated moment in the self-discovery of Melbourne’s cultural institutions. This is a story of the visual arts’ prolonged discovery of abstraction, through which the disciplines of painting and sculpture unburdened themselves of literary illusion and so, conceptually speaking, uncoupled the Gallery’s collection from that of the Library’s holdings. This development is intertwined with modernist formalism’s ascendancy as a movement. As such, we should not be too surprised to find that, as the best-known purveyors of this narrative have receded from public consciousness (i.e. Clement Greenberg), so too has any lasting sense that it describes our contemporary situation. If, in this previous story, (ambitious) art and its (high-brow) audience had both secured their proper place in the Gallery, in the wake of this movement and the disowning of its shape of inhabitation, neither art, nor audience, has any guarantee of its propriety. The story above, then, is really about art discovering that its proper location is not really proper to it at all. So the story becomes one of ongoing revision, wherein shifts in our understanding of art only precipitate and prompt further modes of expression. Having touched on rebelliousness as one form of impropriety, I would suggest that we read the ‘rebelliousness’ of Coulter’s project, the large-scale launch of paper planes in the heart of the library, as a theatrical relay of the contingent relations at play in the process by which artworks ground and locate themselves as something meaningful.
Coulter’s work should prompt us to question not only the status of artworks and their locations but also our status and that of our locations. Whether one is standing in the library throwing planes, or viewing this launch at some later date and in some other location, we are motivated to ask ‘where are we now?’ However one chooses to settle this question, to which there are several answers (in a library, in a gallery, in front of a work of art, as a witness to an event), one will need to accept that no answer will fully cancel out the others. If this situation strikes us as a little surprising, it will probably be because we have failed to register the extent to which the story as it has unfolded above has been as much about writing as a discursive frame as it has been about architecture as a physical one. However much one wants to claim that the passage from the library to the gallery has been first and foremost about experience, the sharing of these experiences — their condition of publicity — has been discursive, mediated, by and large, through writing.4 If there is, finally, no way of settling the question ‘where are we?’ it is because where we are is partly a product of what we write and how we read. Our experiences are not isolated from this fact.
Nevertheless, as the remarks from Andrew Bolt quoted above make clear, it is not a given that everyone will draw from their reading the same conclusions. That a passage is discursive does not prevent it from being blocked in much the same way that a given work of architecture may block our passage to the inside by seeming overly confusing from the outside. Negotiating a work such as 10,000 Paper Planes requires a level of patience not necessarily conducive to the rhythm and temporality of the Internet blog, for example.5 To Bolt’s credit, however, at its most accessible point, 10,000 Paper Planes would seem acutely positioned to rhyme with his skeptical trajectory — the traditional space of the library overrun by a cascading waterfall of paper planes, each one made from a single piece of blank paper so as to suggest that the potential for thought has been replaced by a multitude devoid of any real content. But we might just as easily say that Coulter’s project portrays the blank piece of paper as a potentiality for new content to be written, a launch pad for further ‘lines of flight’, to borrow an apt phrase from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari6. The idea of borrowing is, of course, a practice thoroughly at home within the library and so it should come as no great surprise that it, too, touches on what is perhaps the deepest claim of the project: that artworks, like books, are always in some sense on loan, making explicit the extent to which our experiences are always a form of reading. That a thought such as this might have never figured in the imaginations of those responsible for founding these institutions and who, for whatever reasons, believed that they could nest within each other as parts of the same whole is something we will never know. But it is clearly not a direct repudiation of that imagination either. 10,000 Paper Planes recasts this history, as it has evolved in our contemporary situation, as self-discovery and interdependence: two sides of a piece of paper folded within each other and given to flight.
Toby Miller is a Melbourne-based arts writer.