Only What Can Be Reproduced is Real

“re-inserting, re-membering, repeating, re-stating, re-circulating and re-working is an art of possibility rather than limitation” 

“The material being preserved in the CRISIS LIBRARY is ultimately knowledge, and that knowledge only really gets reproduced when the materials are read.”


Everything is observed in a specious present, but nothing, not even the observations themselves, can ever be in the specious present. Things cannot be directly perceived, the thinking goes, but must be reconstructed by the brain. I am fascinated by the process of memory and reconstruction — how all things accrue detail in repetition. How memories are marked by recall. Among the practices which illustrate sufficiently how re-inserting, re-membering, repeating, re-stating, re-circulating and re-working is an art of possibility rather than limitation, there is CRISIS LIBRARY — the publishing initiative of graphic artist Robin Netherton — which hunts for the end of this long tail. 

The enduring inspiration for CRISIS LIBRARY comes by way of the anarchist practice of “infoshop”, resource spaces used to distribute text and art. They often included photocopy machines for people to use and produce their own booklets, “this particular iteration was originally meant to function more as a library,” Robin tells me, “where people would “borrow” the texts through a printer, but due to COVID it has been moved online.” The present collection follows this crucial inversion — a series of CRISIS EDITIONS are produced specifically for online distribution. They can be read and downloaded through a digital library or reprinted by request. Printed within each “book” floats the vaguely Jean Baudrillard-esque quote, “only what can be reproduced is real” — a lure to read and an ethos of the process. The chosen texts do seem to be selected for their capacity to unveil, to make “real” something invisible or lost, breaking down a construct, or making nuanced that which appears simple. Among them one can read Mike Davis’s The Ecology of Fear – Beyond BLADE RUNNER: Urban Control, an excerpt of Kwame Nkrumah’s NEO-COLONIALISM – THE LAST STAGE OF IMPERIALISM or Lucy Forsyth’s SOFTECHNICA. The latter, though released in 1991, goes on to explain how “new technological systems” are reflections of those who design them and the conditions under which they were devised. For the cage of 2021’s technological circumstance — Facebook’s partisan “fact-checking”, big data, the list goes on — to be summarized far before it’s time, is not a singular experience in this library. 

In a year that has made minutes of our senses, it’s easy/unavoidable to revisit books, movies, texts that mirror our current state like a haunted xerox machine. In her 1999 book, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, Susan D. Moeller cites 1994 as an “unusually apocalyptic year”, which, depending on your constitution, is laughable — how it only gets worse — or horrifying. How long, and how uncanny it seems, that we’ve been in this shadowy and flighty apocalyptic state. To that end, Robin’s CRISIS LIBRARY is a titular linchpin, and a nod to this odd cultural impasse. However, it’s the way in which reproduction and recirculation of archival material change though the CRISIS LIBRARY which is generative. “I believe the audience plays a big role in the reproduction and preservation of these works,” Robin explains, “The material being preserved in the CRISIS LIBRARY is ultimately knowledge, and that knowledge only really gets reproduced when the materials are read. Ultimately the goal of CRISIS EDITIONS and the CRISIS LIBRARY is to recirculate these materials since I believe they still do hold some relevant knowledge value. Their preservation happens through the reproduction and dissemination. If this was purely an archival practice, I would just spend my time filling harddrives with pdfs and every other piece of media I can think of.” Less flashy than a practice of preservation, and certainly less gluttonous, CRISIS LIBRARY is attentive to recirculation — and what the slow practice of reading can reasonably handle. 

What is important to mention about the CRISIS LIBRARY is that it is beautiful. At least, by my simple logic of beauty. Pouring through digital archives, reading lists and links is something I am drawn to in theory, but find kind of unbearable at length. I think circulation is important, but I have more interest in intervention. Intervention on archival materials — like the work of early punk zines, collage and xerox art — has within it the ethos of building, trading, and sharing. Intervention is the idea of identity, without being flattened by objectivity. What is beautiful about the CRISIS LIBRARY is that it is frank. There are curatorial and aesthetic interventions present, these choices are what makes the collection resonant. My experience of CRISIS LIBRARY’S aesthetic and artworks lead me to this place of purposeful havoc. I take with me pieces of those composite parts as I download books. The chalky acid graphics, the small markers of brutalist web-design, haunting structural forms and “infoshop” art. “Working with these archival materials I try to create a sense of temporal disconnect through the choice of texts and aesthetic/design elements,” Robin explains, “These texts now exist both in the present, though their current form in the library, but also in the past, in their original forms. Sometimes I think about CRISIS EDITIONS as an exercise in temporal disruption through objects and aesthetics.” But the spectrality here is not a mere question of atmospherics. What defines this ‘‘hauntological’’ confluence more than anything else is how it gently steps into a larger cultural crisis: the failure of the future. 

More broadly, and more troublingly, the CRISIS LIBRARY gestures to what I can only see as a fragile, kind of viscous, kind of powerful, and incredibly fraught idea of “normal life.” This failure, more broadly, is the loss of social imagination and intervention. It’s when things are reproduced and redistributed with the acceptance of a situation in which culture should continue without really changing. Thinking we can’t intervene, or that one shouldn’t leave an imprint, implies there couldn’t possibly be an alternative to the established colonial, capitalist institution. Every reiteration can be a moment of intervention — and in a time of endless links and lists, of Instagram “resource drops”, and the apparitional inversion of “infoshop” via digital platforms, it feels crucial to use this opportunity to intervene. We should treat knowledge like our brain treats memory — warp, change, gather, and learn in recall. 

The texts available in the CRISIS LIBRARY span 10 years of similarly sticky dissent — the timelessness of the texts feeling less a history lesson than a diagnosis. The library confronts this impasse by intervening on the process of redistribution, and also repetition. Because the books are free, knowledge becomes more accessible, and because the context is moved by color and texture, CRISIS LIBRARY becomes the “infoshop” that makes sense for 2021.  

It is easy to get lost in the past, now that every moment is recorded and presented in a flattened timeline view. But I do believe in our ability to make small incisions, to be a part of the process of copy-making and to dig holes in it, and I think I believe in the crisis of not interfering with it all.