Winter 2001–2002

Artist Project / Destroyed

The accidental poetry of the card catalogue

David Bunn

Card catalogue of the Mütter Museum, College of Physicians, Philadelphia.
Remains of the discarded card catalogue from the Los Angeles Central Library as it appears in the studio of David Bunn.

The now discarded Los Angeles Central Library card catalogue contained approximately two million cards, and was the work of many people over more than one hundred years. It was deactivated and boxed in 1986 when the Central Library closed in the wake of two arson fires, and was then replaced first by a CD-ROM catalogue and finally by an on-line catalogue. In 1990 the card catalogue, scheduled to be pulped, was given to me for use in a permanent installation in the elevators of the library’s new East Wing. I have continued to work on the remains of the card catalogue since that time. The catalogue, which follows the Dewey Decimal classification system, manifests an organizational structure that precedes, collects, and places any particular book or object within it. Thus, it represents a complete collection of “All-the-World’s-Knowledge.” I take this literally. The card catalogue provides a material site for an ongoing, episodic series of works which precede and enframe all possibilities. This has recently included “twinning” the LA Library discards with other obsolete or discarded card catalogues.

The project for Cabinet, part of my most recent “Double 
Monster” project, draws on cards from the LA Library catalogue and from the obsolete card catalogue of the Mütter Museum. The Mütter, housed in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is a museum of pathological specimens begun in 1849 with the donation of the “medical cabinet” of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. Thus, it is a catalogue of the corporeal. The main catalogue of the museum’s holdings was begun in 1884, partially retyped in 1940, and is in the process of being transferred to computer. The card catalogue remains in a museum storeroom.

The project consists of responding to specific cards from the Mütter catalogue by composing a series of texts drawn from the LA card catalogue. The texts are generated by taking, in order, the title lines of a sequence of cards that all begin with a given word. I type them with a conventional typewriter. These texts come to look and read like poetry, a form I call “bureaucratic poetry.” The poems are followed by the cards from which they are drawn.

For this project, I commissioned artist Madena Asbell to paint the cards from the Mütter Museum catalogue as medical illustrations. Each card removed from the catalogue was closely examined on site at the museum. Detailed notes were made about the physical properties of each: the coloration, surface texture, structural integrity, and evidence of physical deterioration including marks, blemishes, and stains were faithfully registered. The body of each card was painted in acrylic. Type and hand script were rendered in pencil and pen and ink.

“My” writing produces a collision of various “stories.” “Double Monster” cross-wires popular, fictional, and self-help books from one card catalogue with a catalogue of real physical specimens, producing a work about the pathology of 19th-century thought as well as our own. In this moment of historical shift from a physical way of knowing to the virtual, this work examines the physicality of the card catalogue as allegory for the physical body: dead, buried, then “body snatched” and re-animated. The card catalogue is revived, but its revivification now resembles a bureaucratic Frankenstein. The corporeal body meets the body of knowledge. The real meets the literary in the murder mystery, the horror film script, or simply the repair manual.

“Double Monster” is the name of both an exhibition at Brooke Alexander, New York, and a limited edition set of seven books.

David Bunn, Destroyed, 2001. Medical illustration by Madena Asbell of Mütter Museum catalogue card.
David Bunn, The Thing, 2001. Typewriter on paper.
David Bunn, The Thing, 2001. Discarded Los Angeles catalogue cards. Included in the print edition of Cabinet no. 5 as an insert.

David Bunn is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.

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