Category Archives: Sydney City

The Quiet Volume

Mitchell Library Reading Room

Waiting in the foyer of the Mitchell Library, I realised just how many people walk in, take a photo of the entrance to the library and the marble map of Tasmania set into the floor, and leave. Most are tourists: as I sat there a large group of American teenagers filed through, entering through the door on the left, filing past the map and taking photos, then exiting through the door on the right. I heard one girl say to her friend “Just one more!” as she paused to take yet another photograph. It is a beautiful library, but I was surprised at the parade of photographing tourists.

Mitchell Library Entrance

Mitchell Library Foyer Map

I was sitting in the foyer of the Mitchell Library waiting for the person who would be my partner for The Quiet Volume, described as a “whipered, automatic performance”, taking place in the Mitchell Library Reading Room. As the performance is for two people, you could either bring a friend or be matched up with another person: I chose the latter, and had been wondering all morning who they might be. As it turns out, it was someone I knew, Lara, who had come from  her project in Hurstville Westfield. “What a surprise to find you in the library,” she said, and we laughed about the coincidence of not being strangers after all.

We were given iPods and taken in to the Reading room, where specific desks had been set up for The Quiet Volume. I could see other couples sitting together, their performance already started, picking up books, or looking around with pensive, listening expressions. Our table was at the back of the library, near the Special Collections area. I like this area as I enjoy peeking at what people are looking at in there. Recently I was doing some research in the Mitchell and I watched a man going through a box of small squares of yellowed paper, tickets, perhaps. I wondered what they were, but there was no way I could ask, people don’t do that kind of thing in libraries.
The Quiet Volume very much worked with this experience of being in the library, what you can and can’t do, the way your internal voice and thoughts work, the act of reading, and the way you view other people in the library space. Lara and I sat side by side like the others and listened to the voices in the headphones. They alternated between reflections, instructions, silence and sound effects (I particularly liked a moment which had a cacophony of dropped pens). There was a pile of books in front of us, novels and a book of city photographs. We went in and out of these books and stories, our movements somewhere between casual and self conscious, although as we sat there few people paid us any attention. A man nearby frowned into his old laptop, two girls conferred about their studies, both grasping pencils, library staff pushed trolleys back and forth and went in and out of the secret doors at the sides of the Reading Room. When I go to the Reading Room to study it is the sound of these doors opening and closing that punctuates whatever I am doing, and it always makes me think of the secret back rooms of the library, and imagine what must be behind them.

All the regular library activities went on around us as we followed the whispered instructions. Afterwards we agreed there had been a lot of directions, and so much concentration was required. At times I became distracted by the condition of my hands, as they were the only part of my body I was really aware of during the performance. Sometimes my thoughts would drift off and I’d stare at the books that surround the room or look over at people studying, and then realise I’d missed a set of instructions. But it was easy to pick up again.

At the end we sat quietly for a few minutes, observing the last few moments of library quiet, before pushing back our chairs and walking back out to the foyer to return our iPods. We flipped through the guestbook, which had been started in Basel – the work has travelled to many countries. Scanning through them we noticed that people had very eloquent and poetic responses to the performance. I guess that makes sense for an artwork about our relationship to reading and libraries.

The Quiet Volume is by Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton, and you can read a short interview I did with Ant for Time Out here.

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Adyar Library

The Adyar library is one of Sydney’s privately operated libraries. There are plenty of private libraries in Sydney, including the Mechanics School of Arts library, libraries in institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum and the MCA, libraries such as the Japan Foundation library, that specialise in a particular language and culture, and smaller libraries not affiliated with institutions such as the Bibliotheca library of artist’s books.

The Adyar library is run by the Theosophical Society, and has a collection focussed on “metaphysical, spiritual and philosophical subjects”.  It is housed in Theosophy House in Kent street, an appropriately Victorian building.

When we got to Theosophy House, a grey-haired woman dressed  in mauve was unlocking a box that contained a noticeboard near the entrance. She saw us at the door, which had a sign saying the lift was out of order stuck on it, and asked if we wanted to go upstairs. She said the library was open for about ten more minutes and we were welcome to visit it, as long as we didn’t mind climbing 5 or 6 flights of stairs. We struggled up the fire escape stairs until we reached the third floor, where we found the library.

The library was very neat, with wooden shelves decorated with indoor plants and pottery. In order to borrow from this library you have to be a member, but it is open to the public for browsing. As we only had ten minutes it was hard to know what to do, so we quickly looked around the shelves. There was a small fiction section and on top of these shelves were a series of pamphlets about Theosophy. The most popular was “The Theosophical Society. What is it all about?” I took the last copy, as I this is something I have wondered for some years.

If asked what I knew about Theosophy before reading this pamphlet, all I could have told you was that it was founded by a woman with the excellent name Madame Blavatsky, in the nineteenth century. From these basics, the pamphlet told me that the society was established in New York City before moving its headquarters to India, to a place named Adyar.

My confusion about what Theosophy is came down to not knowing whether it was a religion or not. The pamphlet assured me that it was not, it was a philosophy that emphasises unity, interconnectedness, and a holistic world view. This made things a little clearer, but only a little.

I didn’t have time to sort out all my questions about Theosophy, so I went looking around the library. As you’d expect there were a lot of books about spiritual and philosophical matters, and it is perhaps the only library in Sydney where there is a whole section on Atlantis.

Lemuria, which I had discovered the existence of at Waterloo library the week before, was the subject of a number of books also. I concentrated on looking at the nearby art section and took out a book called Sensitive Chaos: Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air by Theodor Schwenk.

“Look at this book!” I said to Simon, who was browsing nearby. A woman who was looking at books nearby, who was also wearing purple, peering across, over her glasses, to see the book I was so interested in.

I sat down at one of the nearby tables and looked through Sensitive Chaos. I’d picked it out because of its name and cover design, the kind of 70s textbook appearance that usually means good pictures lie inside. The zinemaker in me has a good radar for interesting black and white pictures. I was not disappointed. I flipped through all sorts of weird pictures of whirlpools, smoke, shells, ears, woodgrain and jellyfish, any of which would have made a great zine or 7″ cover. All the swirly, fluid shapes was slightly perception altering; I could have looked at the book for much longer to discover its secrets. Many others had, it had been borrowed at least a couple of times a year, I saw on the card at the back.

Does the “R” mean returned? I’ve seen it on other cards like this so I guess it does.

I could see through the internal windows into an office where a man sat at a desk, talking to the small lady in purple we had seen downstairs. The offices of the Adyar library seemed a nice place to spend one’s days, cosy among the shelves and the plants and posters of the Three Objects of Theosophy.

Simon beckoned me over to the reference section to show me a big, old book of Occult Chemistry, bound in green cloth. There were a number of books on this subject, with strange diagrams inside and an alternate version of the periodic table.

I understood almost nothing of what the book was about, but I imagined myself in another kind of life where I was an occult chemist and this book made sense to me. It was an appealing kind of daydream, in which I worked in an alchemist’s den and went home to my unusual pets every evening.

Near the reference section were more pamphlets and a magazine section, and there were a number of nooks here and there in which bundles of cassettes with typewritten labels were piled. But I didn’t have time to look any further, the librarian was starting to tidy up the desk and a cleaner had come in to empty the bins. The emblem on his shirt was for a cleaning company, and I imagined he spent his evenings going around offices, like the people you see vacuuming the bank after hours. It must be an easy job cleaning the Adyar library, it didn’t look like anything too messy would ever happen there.

“Have you got what you need?” the librarian asked us and the woman who was still looking at the shelves.

“Oh, we were just having a look,” I said. I would have to look at the books properly, and discover occult knowledge, another day.

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