International Society for the Study of Time  

"Archivists of the Future": Katie Paterson and David Mitchell

David Mitchell and Katie Paterson presented work at the ISST's conference "Time's Urgency," at the University of Edinburgh in June 2016: Mitchell read three unpublished short stories, and Paterson talked about several of her artworks, and the two then engaged in a dialogue about Paterson’s Future Library, in which a forest of trees will become an anthology of books to be printed in 100 years (2114), composed of works contributed by authors each year and held in trust. Mitchell was the second author invited to contribute a text; to date, Margaret Atwood and Sjón have also deposited works, and Elif Shafak has just been named as the next invitee. “Archivists of the future,” which evokes many aspects of Mitchell and Paterson’s work, is a phrase from Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014)—Paul Harris.

Paul Harris: Let’s begin with Future Library as an archive of the future—Katie, what was the germination of the idea?  Can you talk about it in relation to your sense of time? 

Katie Paterson: The idea to grow trees to print books arose for me through making a connection with tree rings to chapters, the material nature of paper, pulp and books, and imagining writer’s thoughts infusing themselves, ‘becoming’ the trees, over an expansive period of time. As if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come. 

The beginnings of Future Library could be anything from the small sketch of tree rings as chapters I made on a train several years ago, or the seedlings that have been planted, or the first words written. The idea for Future Library happened in a micro second where notions of time, growth, future, place, stories, pulp, matter, cells, smells, all collapsed into one.

Future Library has pillars, and an inherent ecology, parts interact to create the whole. The forest, the growth, the pulp, the soil, the light and all the natural ingredients that will bring the paper and books into being in the future. The texts, and the manuscripts written by 100 authors, over and through time. The ideas stored within the trees before harvest. The Silent Room, housed in an city landscape, that looks out to the forest and vice versa. Future Library exists in many spheres, many of them unseen (words written and read by unborn people, held in the current imagination). There are material and immaterial aspects. 

Future Library is not a directly environmental statement, but involves ecology, the interconnectedness of things – those living now and still to come. It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now. It’s an artwork made not only for us now, but for a future generation, in an unknown time and place. 

Future Library connects with my wider art practice through its engagement with nature and time – long, slow time. Whilst previous works have dealt with time on geologic or cosmic scales (the billions of years light has travelled from an exploding star, the million year ages of ancient fossils) in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting. It is beyond many of our current lifespans, but close enough to come face to face with, to comprehend and relativize. Inside the forest time stands still. This place could have existed for one hundred, one thousand, one million, or even one hundred million years. 

PH: David, what was your response to the invitation and the project, and what was the challenge of it?

David Mitchell:I wasn’t quite sure how ‘for real’ Katie’s proposal was when my agent first passed it on, even though came from Simon Prosser, a respected editor and trustworthy acquaintance.  A hundred years?  Nobody reads the manuscript?  Really?  I receive offers from half-baked to fully-baked to decidedly uncooked and I didn’t know where to place this one.  Then I learned that Margaret Atwood had taken the plunge the first year and, feeling a little foolish, I thought, Fine, it’s for real.

I began to think about the beauty of launching a little bottle with my message in it onto the sea of time, and knowing that people not yet born will receive it, and read it, and think about the long-dead sender of the bottle.  It’s almost like a phone line to them: I can wave at them, and say ‘Hi!’ and see them wave back.  It also feels like an affirmation that they, and books, and trees, and Norway, and civilisation, will still be there in a hundred years.  After the last couple of years, I need that affirmation like Asterix needs his magic potion.  In demonstrable everyday senses as well as some strands of Buddhist theology, the future is crafted by thought.  The Future Library Project is a manifestation of this idea.

As you know, I can’t tell you too much about my artistic response, i.e. what I submitted, because of the scroll Katie made me sign in blood during that weird ritual on a blasted heath with the witches.  All I’ll say is, I wrote something that engaged with the spirit of the project and played with its themes, particularly time and human memory and history.  The title, which we are encouraged to make public, contains a few clues: From Me Flows What You Call Time.  Which I nicked from Tōru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer.

The challenge… was there a particular challenge?  I’m not sure.  When writers were writing fiction in 1917 they weren’t thinking about what would and what wouldn’t make sense to us, in 2017 – and good luck to any of them who may have tried, because their attempts would have been doomed.  They were just trying to write as well as they could.  I did the same.  Nobody knows who the future writers are going to be – many of these, too, are not yet born – but it’s a safe bet the standard of work is going to be very high, so when the whole library is published in 2114, I don’t want mine to look too shoddy.

PH: Each in your own way archivists of the future in your work.  Can you talk about how that interest evolved?  And, there is a specific temporality that is opened—the duration is different, its correspondence to reality is different….

KPFuture Library could be seen as a future archive. Most of the project doesn’t yet exist, it is archiving the unknown. It extends into the past and future, through layers of time and distance. It looks back and forward in time simultaneously: from the history of printed books on paper, to future authors who aren’t yet born, trees that aren’t grown, words yet unwritten and unimagined.

Future Library unfolds concurrently over long, slow time – a century – and the present moment - the diurnal, daily cycles of the trees, the seasons, and the author’s yearly contributions and handover events. The momentary, imperceptible changes in the growth of the trees, the unread words in the author’s manuscripts take shape year by year. The project is marked out by yearly demarcations like chapters in a book, which keep it fluid. It exists in the here and now, as well as for and into an unknown future whose temporality and correspondence to reality is distant and skewed. The duration of 100 years seems on the fringes of being graspable and knowable. 

DM: I’m writing this three months after Katie wrote the above, so I get to read her answers just before I write mine.  It’s a little intimidating: God, she’s so smart!  Much more clod-hoppingly, then, I’m an archivist of the future insofar as I like to set stories there, and in order to do so I need to know what my characters know.  Meaning, I have to know their pasts, and the recent history of their worlds – which lies, of course, in the future as viewed from the early twentieth century.  Why do I like to set things in the future?  Dunno… Because I’m me?  Because I read Isaac Asmiov and Ursula le Guin and William Gibson and watched Star Trek and Doctor Who when I was kid, and thought, Wow, that works for me… I’d like to do that too…?  Could be.

Can you talk about how that interest evolved?”  Well, I hope I get better at doing it… And my work needs to be different each time, otherwise I’m repeating myself, and that’s rude to my readers and dull for me.  My (non-verbal) son’s autism makes me wonder about how he perceives time, and these wonderings are rearing their heads in a few recent pieces of fiction.  Similarly, my daughter has taught me a lot about DC and Marvel superheroes, some of whom are studies in atypical temporalities (normally I’d put that in quotes but in the present company I don’t feel the need.)  Quicksilver and The Flash, for example, whose superpower is moving about the place faster than a bullet: from their perspective, they’re not fast – it’s us, and everyone else, who is trapped in a much much slower stream of time.  I wrote a story about this recently, called My Eye on You.  (The pram in the hallway is the enemy of art”?  What a tawdry, opportunity-wasting way to think – my kids have enriched my creative life beyond all measure.)  And, if this doesn’t sound too sycophantic, my conversations with a certain Paul Harris and his neighbour Pierre Jardin have beefed up how I think about time, by adding ‘time’ to the list of singular nouns that ought really to be plurals.  We live in a matrix of times, with an ’s’.  Calendrical, life-span, diurnal, monthly, historic, geological, planetary, caffeine-hit-to-caffeine-hit, to name just those that spring to mind right now.  The question is less, ‘Why does temporality fascinate you?’ and more ‘How could temporality possibly not fascinate you?’

PH: It seems no accident that you are both interested in the deep past in your work, as much as the future.  What is the relation between stretching the boundaries of cultural and cosmic memory and looking to the future?

KP: Astronomy is important to me and figures in so many of my artworks, mostly due to the revelations of the deep interconnections between humans and everything else. This can be evident through the geological connections in the strata on earth, to the remnants of supernovas flowing through our blood. I’m interested in how we attempt to contemplate ideas of being able to look back in time, to the beginnings of the universe. I was astonished to learn that all the matter that exists now in the universe is all that will ever exist, because everything - all the stars, galaxies and matter - is moving away from each other so quickly, it can no longer collide and produce new objects. For me, these are ideas that just can’t be rationalized. How do we conceive of a time before the earth existed? Being able to look through powerful telescopes and witness eras in the universe so inexplicably distant can heighten awareness of deep time and stretch cosmic memory, from the past into the future.

You could say there is a cosmic memory engrained in the materials and phenomena I tend to work with: fractions of Saharan sand, the billion-year-old light from dying stars, ancient darkness from the edges of the early universe, to fossil beads from the first single-celled life on earth, and slides which chart the unknown evolving universe. These materials project the imagination forward and backwards through time and space. The beads could be micro future or past planets. Looking to the most distant past can feel like a journey into an infinite future. To experience time billions of years ago now, looking to a time proceeding the earth and ourselves, I find this almost as challenging as looking forward into an expansive future.

DM: Yeah, what she said.

I keep answering your questions with more questions, Paul – do the Germans have a word for that? – and here I go again: would it not be profoundly odd to be interested in the future but not the past, or vice versa?  Time is all time, not just one stretch of it.  Isn’t every line infinite, and what we call a line not, in fact, a true line, but only a segment of a line?

PH: You both stretch temporal boundaries in your work, and you both create work known for challenging artistic forms, genres, limits or conventions.  Can you talk about the relation between these things?

KP: A sense of limits, or impossibility, is a filter I don’t think I was born with. Conventions rarely rule my creative life: curiosity, and making this kind of artwork, can be liberating. I am grateful that forms and genres are something I don’t tend to dwell on – the idea at hand never does - whether that involves the colour of the end of time, working with nano-materials or carving out records made of glacial ice in a deep freezer. Stretching temporal boundaries may not be in my field everyday experience, but is wide open and malleable when it can take shape in the mind and imagination. 

DM: Reality stretches temporal boundaries.  Reality challenges artistic forms, genres, limit and conventions.  I merely follow its lead.

Maybe what a temporal boundary or convention in my art – novels should be linear, for example, with no back-flashes or forward-flashes – has in common with genre boundary is its artifice, its arbitrariness, the fact that a human, or a critic (not that critics aren’t human) decided the boundary is there.  Thus these things are analogous to cartography.  While cartography is sometimes connected to the geography it draws lines upon, geography for its part doesn’t pay much attention to cartography.  Cartography, to be sure, is an interesting discipline.  Geography, however, is freakin’ awesome.

PH: Your work induces a kind of temporal vertigo, produces experiences of sudden unbounding of time, a lovely phrase for which is a "phoenix flash of reverie," from Gaston Bachelard.  Have you had experiences of this kind? Or, do you seek to integrate such moments into your work or open that kind of experience to viewers/readers?

KPA phoenix flash of reverie, catching hold of unbounding of time, I would like to make the mandate of my creative practice. This is something I aspire to attaining with regularity, but time plays tricks. There might be a flash, and then three years of bringing an idea into being. I’m currently working on a book of Ideas, you could say a book of temporary flashes, a repository of reverie. It brings together short statements of intent, works that exist, that don’t exist, that may exist, that are there simply to exist in the imagination. The Ideas all three-lined short, almost Haiku-like expressions, their subjects ranging from earth and the moon, to the very distant edges of light, unbounded time and space. The Ideas are mixed up with works that I have already brought into the world, blurring a fictional line. Some are way off scale, and are clearly things that you can’t do in this world. I wanted to evoke and activate them in the reader’s mind.

Working on lengthy research and busy production processes can contradict creativity so I found a way to work spontaneously, stripping years of work to only a few words, which can be communicated instantly with the reader. If flashes of reverie can be rich, does it matter if an experience exists for a nano-second or beyond?

DM: ‘A phoenix flash of reverie’ is indeed a lovely phrase: it is also highly interpretable.  For me, it makes me think of the ‘long moments’ I may experience a handful of times a year when I feel like I’m removed from the ceaseless whitewater hurly burly of time, and I feel intensely aware of the present moment, of right now; and intensely conscious that this isn’t how things usually are; and intensely calm, with the PAUSE button pressed on the monkey mind, mid-banana or mid-armpit scratch.  I don’t know what brings these moments on.  I suspect they just find me, and I’m duly grateful, because they feel wonderful.  The boundary between me and everything else feels membrane-light and transparent, at these times.  The word ‘vertiginous’ applies: these moments make me catch my breath at the changed perspective.  I think more clearly, or at least I think I do.  It’s like being in Rivendell.  Then, suddenly, the reverie is gone and I’m out faffing with hobbits, the annoying ones, or getting impaled by orcs again, and I forget things were ever different until the next reverie comes along, days or weeks or months later – or until I think about them, which I’m doing now.

PH: What associations do you have with our 2016 conference theme, "Time's Urgency"?

KP: I associate this idea with our current sense of urgency in terms of acting and creating change, in relation to our lifetimes, the next generation’s lifetimes, and the next. Beyond these coming centuries, time starts to stretch into the infinite and neverending, into geologic or cosmic stretches of time, where a sense of urgency falls away. 

DM: I associate this idea with mortality.  Time has all the time in the world, in the universe – I can’t imagine Time ever really ‘doing’ urgency.  This hairy skin bag of organs and tubes and inlets and orifices and nerves and secreting glands we fondly think of as ‘Me’, however, most certainly does not have all the time in the world.  Famously, and truly, our supply of time is spent at an accelerating rate as we age.  Let’s not waste the stuff on grudges, or angry arguments inside our heads with people who cannot hear us because they aren’t there, or clickbait, or fretting over things we are wholly powerless to influence.  The singer-songwriter David Crosby has a song called Time is the Final Currency.  It’s not a particularly great song, but it’s a great title.  It’s true.

PH: On behalf of the ISST, I want to thank you both for enriching our conference with your presentations, and participating in this conversation.  As both a fan and scholar of both of your singular, inspiring bodies of work, I look forward to seeing how they develop, and hope you will attend a future ISST conference.

This interview will be printed in the forthcoming Time's Urgency: The Study of Time XVI (Brill), Robert Daniel and Carlos Montemayor, eds.


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