“Libraries are places in which to experiment with the use of knowledge”
An interview with Iván Argote (b. Bogotá, 1983), the artist chosen for the Concomitancia at the Library of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Complutense University of Madrid.
How can we rethink the way a library does things today? And how can an artistic project approach this transformation? The Concomitancia at the Library of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Complutense University of Madrid, explores the answers to these questions with the help of Iván Argote (b. Bogotá, 1983), the artist selected for the project. On his first visit to the library in late March, the Paris-based artist continued a line of previous public artworks that explore the tensions and the potential of being together, such as the installations he is currently working on at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po universities in France. For this project, the idea is to continue experimenting with the kinds of collectivity and gathering that emerge in libraries, in order to come up with a work that essentially celebrates new ways of being, studying, and imagining together.
What is your relationship with libraries?
In Colombia, when I started university, I had a pretty special relationship with libraries: some friends and I used to make up strategies to navigate them in different ways. The library was a parallel place where I could experiment with my work, separate from the university and my studies. In fact, I made several installations, aided and abetted by the library staff who became my friends. Libraries have been a place where I can isolate myself and collect my thoughts, but also a place to experiment with the use of knowledge and ways of dealing with so much information by generating strategies based on play, and more play.
What about the Library of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Complutense University, what were your first impressions?
It kind of reminds me of my university in Colombia. I really like the atmosphere on campus and in the library, where the books are a strong presence, very visible, which is not always the case at libraries. And there’s a sense of the campus being used, of the day-to-day use of things, tables, lockers, doors... The context is different to an exhibition, where things do not appear to be used, there’s no visible wear and tear.
“There should be more projects like this one, in dialogue with a particular context. Although it’s also good to work independently, that’s necessary too. Not all art has to be contextual.”
You’re currently working on two projects in similar contexts, at the Sciences Po and Sorbonne universities in Paris.
Yes, they’re two major public commissions. The one at the Sorbonne is for an architectural project at the new Sorbonne Nouvelle campus, we’ve been working on it for three years. I took part and worked with students who sent us thousands of phrases they found interesting, taken from their culture, their language, their influences. I then used them to create and edit some texts that are going to be distributed all over the place. The Sciences Po project is also for a new campus, similar to and more recent than the one at the Sorbonne. We did a workshop with the students there, looking at the friction between sentimental and political writing.
So yes, for this commission I’m interested in creating an artwork that connects with the people who are going to be inhabiting the space, more than me. In this case (where the campus is already in use), it means learning to work with an existing administration, with spaces that are already used in certain ways and have a life of their own, beyond what any architect can ever imagine. It’s great to come and observe, to immerse myself and try to generate other protocols for collaboration.
Concomitentes is based on the idea of creating art in response to a citizen desire. How does that desire inspire, limit, or affect you?
The fact that we’re embarking on this collaboration has to do with the way I’ve worked in the past: I like to be very permeable to context, I’d find it very hard to come and impose something in a place where I’m a stranger. There’s a kind of pleasure in discovering through language—from words to uses and hidden places—and building mutual understanding with a place and with people. So the challenge and the complexity have to do with being able to generate something along those lines.
How do you think art should speak to and connect with people?
It can also be good for artists to isolate themselves or generate more abstract discourses. But I do think interaction, closeness, and contact are necessary, especially at this moment in time.
“It’s still too early to know, but there are several things I find interesting. One is the architectural form: there are some spaces that seem interesting to me that are unused or have other uses."
Is there a common thread that runs through your work?
There are a few important themes in my work, which have to do with our relationship to history, to the past, to our heritage. But there’s one question that runs through all of them, which is about how the way we interact with each other can allow us to question or challenge our relationship to history, power, and economics. I’ve always been interested in generating actions with others on the streets, on public transport, in places, museums, outdoors or in a park. But I also like to make structures or sculptures that are usable, so people can sit on them, or mobile, so they can be used for social interaction and play.
Do you know what line you’re going to explore for the Concomitentes commission?
It will explore the relationship to the plant world and obviously to the library and how it can do something more tentacular, not just in the campus and within this 100-metre perimeter, but perhaps reaching out further, in a way that is not necessarily physical. They’re just ideas for now, there’s no direct inspiration or idea, it’s a process that comes with observation, experience, and with a little more work.
How was your first contact with the citizen-commissioners and with the commission itself?
It was quite moving to come here today and discover the campus and the library. It’s like meeting a person, an entity. There is a catalogue, where I left a little inscription for the library, which said: “lovely to meet you, I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better.” It’s been a really agreeable experience so far, there’s a lot of information I need to process. I think it might be something that originates here and, like books, can go in many directions. Like the labyrinth it is, it can end up anywhere.