Let’s Talk

by Jonathan McNicol

The article you are reading right now will probably never be part of a museum exhibition. We—you and I—we should come to terms with that at the outset here. I’ve spent however much time writing this; you’re about to spend however much time reading it. And that’ll pretty much be that. Sure, this story will be archived on the Daily Nutmeg website for quite some time. Yeah, your email copy of it may linger in your inbox for weeks or longer (much longer, if you’re anything like me).

But its usefulness has a limit. Its shelf life, if you’ll allow me the jargon. We try to publish pieces here at The Nutmeg that have ‘legs,’ as they say. ‘Evergreen’ stories that aren’t terribly timely, not too newsy. Articles that aren’t tied to today, that are just as readable and interesting and informative months—or even years!—down the line. But even those sorts of stories lose their cache of relevance over time, don’t they? And this actually isn’t even one of those. This is a story about an exhibit at a library that ends in just three days. How compelling do you suppose this information will be by next August?

These are the sorts of things I was thinking about as I left the Architecture in Dialogue exhibit at Yale's Beinecke Library, which is on display there through December 14 (which is this Friday—three days from now, in case you missed that the first time). I went into it expecting to think about… I don't know. To think about buildings, I guess, right? An exhibit about architecture? At a library? I went into it expecting to consider buildings and bridges and feats of design and engineering. To ponder models and—you would assume—books. And probably drawings. Schematics. Renderings in blue pencil with many notations in all-caps lettering. Questions of tensile strength and fireproofing.

But my mistake (and maybe—maybe—the Beinecke’s) was to focus on that first word in the name of the exhibition: architecture. Thinking of it as an exhibit about architecture is perhaps arbitrary, and it is definitely arbitrarily limiting. What the Beinecke has on display here, culled from the thousands of objects that make up the Peter Eisenman Collection at Yale, is not scale models and blueprints. Instead you'll find largely… paper. Items a layperson would think of as ephemera. Disposable. Instead you’ll find hundreds of pamphlets, posters, magazines, manifestos, brochures, and, yes, a few books—all objects that the renowned architect, and Yale professor, Eisenman collected in the 1960s and early ’70s while traveling Europe.

And the connection between most of these things and architecture isn’t obvious, and it’s maybe even tenuous. The items on display come from the first decades of the twentieth century right through to the 1970s, but the lion’s share of the materials in the exhibit date to the period between the world wars, the 1920s and ’30s. Rather than pieces directly related to architecture, you’ll find issues of design magazines, advertisements for an art school, an illustrated screenplay, a catalog from an art exhibition of the time.

And what you find in all this stuff, these materials that, today, we’d probably just drop in a recycling bin after we’d perused them, is that the focus of this Architecture in Dialogue exhibit is on that third word: dialogue. What you find in these moments excised from history is a world in conversation with itself, a world, in that interwar period, trying to understand itself, to sort out its differences, its samenesses, its new freedoms and its forgone controls. You find magazine spreads where different schools of art—the Dadas, the constructivisms—work together and against each other. You find foldout posters that use different media—typography, photography, poetry, film and, yes, architecture—in concert with one another. You find manifestos and treatises that mix the newest thinking in art with the rising movements in politics and government—futurism and fascism, modernism and socialism.

But I think I should avoid the specifics here because the specifics obscure the point. Many of the items on display are fascinating on their own, this period in world history is certainly dense and inexhaustibly interesting, there are plenty of important artists and thinkers of the time who are compelling figures to this day—but I didn’t walk out of the Beinecke thinking about any of those particulars. I walked out thinking about the way our world converses with itself, the way the dialogues of our daily lives mirror the interplay happening on the world stage. Like reading a volume of Jefferson’s or Vonnegut’s letters, this exhibit presents the world entire in discussion, engaged in debate, talking it all out, through art and politics, on the printed, disposable page.

An eight-foot-long typo- and photomontage that works as printed cinema is beautiful and engaging, yes. Works of Dadaist poetry that focus on letters and forms and sounds, rather than words and lines and ideas, are confounding and compelling, for sure. But the larger picture here is that it’s our day-to-day dialogues that move the world forward. It’s the magazine articles and the newspaper ads, it’s our emails and instant messages, it’s the conversations that we’ll have forgotten tomorrow that present the best picture of our world today. It’s the online local news stories that’ll never make it into a museum’s collection decades down the road that best represent this particular moment.

That’s a big idea. It’s bigger than architecture; it’s bigger than art. It’s bigger than politics, and it’s bigger than the world-events-and-major-milestones version of history that we usually consider. History happens in days, not decades. It happens in words, not volumes. History is conversation. It’s dialogue. It’s these bits and bytes on your screen right now. Whether we’ll remember them or not.

Originally published, in different form, at The Daily Nutmeg, December 11, 2012.