How has this project come to life? What was your urgency behind the making of this work?
There are several points to trace back to the beginning of this project, its genesis. The novel Fahrenheit 451 by Rad Bradbury (1953) was an important source. It tells the story of a future society where firemen burn books because they are deemed dangerous, and an underground movement of people start learning books by heart in order to preserve them for the future. Another source is the story of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (and as a ‘source’ I discovered it later). She was memorizing her poems together with friends, then burning them in her stove, and this is how her poems survived censorship.
Then, the reason I was drawn to this, to want to work with the practice of memory in this way, was prompted by a call for papers and proposals from an artistic and academic context, with the question: what do we bring with us for the future? One reference here was the Global Seed Vault on the Svalbard archipelago in the north of Norway which opened in 2008. To help protect the existing plant life on Earth from various global catastrophes, millions of edible plant seeds from around the world are stored in a repository in the permafrost, deep inside the mountains close to Longyearbyen. Taking the question a bit at face value, it made me wonder about what futures we are able to imagine and on what timescale we view the future. In relation to the performing arts, this brought some interesting reflections. Not only to insist and fetishize the moment, as I see it the present doesn’t exist without past and future, but to understand something else about why now is important.
Then as a project, it also had an interesting story of how it was first realized. I was invited by artist Sarah Vanhee to contribute to her project The Great Public Sale of Unrealized but Brilliant Ideas with an idea that for whatever reason had not yet been realized. So I prosed to her this idea, to learn books by heart and recite for readers, which at this point was just a formulation of an idea on a piece of paper. My idea was then auctioned in the ‘great public sale’ and was bought by an arts institution. This, which is a bit of a longer story, meant that I could realize the first iteration of the work without having made a project application, and more importantly, without having made promises for the future (of which I knew nothing!) I take with me many interesting reflections about how work is formatted in the arts, and how that doesn’t always work or isn’t the model that fits all processes.
Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine premiered in 2010 and was presented in various cities and countries ever since. In almost every city you add new books to the library of living books, possibly in the local language. What does the unfolding over such a long time of one of your works does to your thinking and artistic practice? What does the aspect and notion of time do to the project itself?
We started in 2010 as a group of seven people becoming ‘books’ in Dutch and in English. Now we are more than 100 ‘books’ and in many languages. This was not my aim when we began! In fact, I would never have imagined this, and this is also so wonderful. To be able to be with a practice, a project, to follow its steps and developments, to let new questions arise, to learn from it, see where it brings us. More than growing in numbers, it’s growing in its capacities, contents, knowledges, encounters, formats. We do, as you say, sometimes add new ‘books’. Usually, this is in places where we don’t have any ‘books’ in the local language, as now in Helsinki for instance. This also allows the project to breathe, to be close to practice because we are sharing it with new people. Not just what we are doing, but the intentions of it, the choices of books, what motivates choice, the methods of learning, all the things that are discovered, and the spaces of sharing. All of this makes the project. So to be able to be so close to the process, as an ongoing thing, keeps the project so vital for those involved, I believe. Then there are also all the different steps that have developed from this practice; the second generation, where we pass on our books orally to someone learning from us instead of learning from paper pages; the rewriting editions, which are our memorized versions written down again by heart, back to paper – and so many other formats of exchange, research, ways of sharing. As a project, Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine keeps activating and proliferating, by still doing the same. It has taught me a lot about how to take care of a work, how to be attentive to its processes and needs, to not always reply to the demands from the outside – sometimes even to protect it.
Learning a book by heart and spending time with the book is at the centre of this work. Please share your experience of learning a book by heart, carrying it with you and sharing it with potential readers.
The original set up of the one-to-one encounters between ‘book’ and ‘reader’ is still the base of the work and still feels so relevant and strong to experience. It’s the heart of the project.
Personally, learning a book by heart has changed me as a reader. The closeness of reading, to be able to read ‘into’ the writing the way one experiences when memorizing, is opening up many aspects of both reading and writing. For instance when reading poetry, as I have been busy with this lately, (and I think the best way to read poetry is to learn it by heart), it is not from understanding through analysing, but from repeating it, again and again, and letting the poem come towards you, you towards it.
When memorizing a book, it’s not just about the story, of course. It’s the words, the rhythm, it is something more abstract. And this reading becomes very visible, and readable, through the process of learning by heart. It’s like the book grows thicker and thicker, not only through the pages added, but the density of detail of each page. It may sound heavy, but it’s not. It’s a porous and light affair. Like a little treasure, we carry around in us, something to go to.