Missing Titles in The Blue Notebook

This article on Vagabond Reviews‘ installation, Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles, by Logan Sisley was originally published in The Blue Notebook: Journal for artists’ books, Volume 9 No 2, April 2015. See http://www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk/bnotebk.htm for further information.

The Blue Notebook, Volume 9 No 2, April 2015

The Blue Notebook, Volume 9 No 2, April 2015

Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles is an imaginary library of knowledge about cities which was realised by Vagabond Reviews for the exhibition, Phoenix Rising: Art and Civic Imagination, at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.[1] The work comprises 48 books which are exhibited face-out on a shelf running around the walls of a gallery. These are books that are intended to be looked at – not opened – as they are as yet unwritten. The titles were contributed by various individuals following an invitation from Vagabond Reviews, which comprises Ailbhe Murphy and Ciaran Smyth. They have written that the work ‘explores the city as an object of scientific knowledge and imagination, on the boundary between the thought and the unthought, the written and the unwritten, the real and the imagined.’ (Vagabond Reviews exhibition text).

Phoenix Rising: Art and Civic Imagination references the 1914 Dublin Civic Exhibition and the work of Scottish biologist, sociologist and planner Patrick Geddes. The Civic Exhibition attempted to re-imagine Dublin as ‘the phoenix of cities’ during a period of economic, social and political strife. Phoenix Rising did not seek to replicate or simply commemorate the Civic Exhibition, but aimed to reflect, through the work of contemporary artists, on certain aspects of the work of Patrick Geddes and broader questions of how we understand and represent cities. The exhibition opened in November 2014 following another period of economic crisis in Ireland and a re-emergence of the term ‘civic’ in public debate. Alongside Vagabond Reviews, Phoenix Rising featured work by Stephen Brandes, Mark Clare, Cliona Harmey, Stéphanie Nava and Mary-Ruth Walsh, whose works in various media respond both to Dublin itself and to imaginary, historical and ideal cities. A series of films, talks and tours was intended to echo The Summer School of Civics, held under the Directorship of Patrick Geddes in conjunction with the 1914 Civic Exhibition. A Phoenix Rising newsletter was produced throughout the exhibition period in order to extend the scope of the project and make available research generated by the exhibition process.

In response to an invitation to participate in Phoenix Rising, Vagabond Reviews developed Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles, taking a cue from the interdisciplinary methodologies of Patrick Geddes in gathering a broad spectrum of perspectives on the city. Vagabond Reviews is an interdisciplinary arts initiative established in 2007 by artist Ailbhe Murphy and independent researcher Ciaran Smyth that harnesses the creative potential of both art and social science. They have sought to develop imaginative and collaborative models of knowledge production, representation and distribution through a combination of art practice, research strategies and critical review. Previous projects have investigated particular urban contexts, such as City (Re)Searches: Experiences of Being Public, an interdisciplinary arts-based inquiry into different typologies of being public in the Šančiai district of Kaunas, Lithuania. Other projects that reflect on urban experiences include a city-wide dialogue on public art in the city of Galway, Ireland, and a cultural archaeology of the Rialto area of Dublin in partnership with Fatima Groups United. Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles was also informed by their ongoing research into the idea of the capital city and the various forms of capital – economic, political, and symbolic – that are embedded in the urban sphere.

In gathering the Missing Titles, Vagabond Reviews sought a ‘diagnostic snapshot’ from various disciplines of the thinking required to understand Dublin, or the contemporary city in general. They extended an invitation to people working in the fields of geography, architecture, political science, planning, medicine, sociology and other human sciences asking each for ‘a work that’s needed, even urgent, but unwritten in their field. It can be practical, provocative, revolutionary or otherwise immoderate in its ambition for the city.’ (Vagabond Reviews exhibition text) It was not long before titles were sent in and the response rate was high; they had clearly tapped into a rich store of unwritten knowledge.

Vagabond Reviews created an imaginary publishing house, Scientia Civitatis, as a mechanism through which to present the Missing Titles to the public. The name, translated from the Latin, means knowledge of the city. The covers of the books were designed with graphic designer Val Bogan and a consistent appearance was used in order to emphasise the titles rather than any visual imagery that might have been incorporated. Nonetheless, the appearance of the books is particular, resembling a series of texts that might have been produced by an academic publisher. They are hardcover, substantial and weighty in appearance. Along with the title and author information, each dust jacket is decorated with an abstract graphic, appropriately resembling a map of a city or an information network, and a green, yellow or blue coloured band. The titles were each allocated a colour by Vagabond Reviews, hinting at their own system of classification, although one which is not explicit. While the books themselves provided no information about the authors other than their names, a panel with an alphabetical list of contributors identified their field of enquiry and academic affiliation, if applicable.

Vagabond Reviews, Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles, 2014; installation view, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane © the artists; photograph by Ros Kavanagh

Vagabond Reviews, Scientia Civitatis: Missing Titles, 2014; installation view, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane © the artists; photograph by Ros Kavanagh

The books were displayed with the covers facing out on a shelf 140cm from the floor – eye level rather than desk level. They were positioned to be looked at – the traditional mode of looking at art in a gallery – rather than read as a book. While the potential content might have been tempting for some, a glimpse inside would simply reveal the blank pages of the sketchbooks around which the dust jackets were wrapped. In some cases the titles provoked a double-take for visitors who were familiar with one or more of the ‘authors’ but unfamiliar with the title in question.

The titles themselves provide a tantalising glimpse of each author’s thinking, highlighting the expressive potential of a few well chosen words. The Missing Titles also range from the concise – Ghettopia by architect/artist/theorist/activist Kyong Park – to the more ample – Missing Trains of Thought (A Trilogy): Connolly Station (The Departure of Melancholy); Below the Loopline (The Beauties of Butt Bridge); Westland Row (And Other Arguments with the City) by architect John Tuomey. Some make literary references – The Social Geography of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin by geographer Gerry Kearns and The Dragon Sandstrewer by filmmaker Patrick Keiller (a reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses). Others are more polemical, such as Kylie Mangan’s proposed Sedating the Slums: How Drugs Maintain Social Order. The arrangement of the books along the shelves resulted in interesting adjacencies: for example, Hyden Plenvue’s Eternal City is followed by John Bissett’s STOP.

Some titles are local – Is Binn Béal Ina Thost: Fathoming Silences in South Dublin by anthropologist Steve Coleman – while others are applicable globally – The City which Mistook its Crisis for a Plan by architect Gráinne Shaffrey. This shift from the Dublin-specific to the general is present in Stephen Marshall’s title, The Atlas of All Town Plans (Actual and Possible), Vol 4: Dublin to Eutopia, and this echoes the transition from the local to the global that Geddes used to structure his Outlook Tower. This was an observatory in Edinburgh that Geddes developed into a ‘sociological laboratory’ in the 1890s. The visitor progressed through a series of exhibits extending from the street to the city to the nation and beyond: from the known to the increasingly unknown.

Geddes had an ongoing interest in using experimental exhibition formats to convey complex ideas and encourage public engagement. He employed the principle of an Index Museum – both an encyclopaedia graphica and an encyclopaedia methodica in which knowledge of the world was structured rationally using things and diagrams instead of words. His touring Cities and Town Planning Exhibition, which he brought to Dublin in 1911, was organised along these lines. In each location special emphasis would also be given to an analysis of the city in question. On viewing the exhibition in London in 1910, the planner Patrick Abercrombie noted that: ‘visitors could criticise his show – the merest hotchpotch – picture postcards – newspaper cuttings – crude old woodcuts – strange diagrams – archaeological reconstructions… many of them not even framed.’ (Abercrombie, 1959, p. 159) Geddes encouraged the viewer to actively engage with the material on display. He wrote that the 1911 Dublin exhibition would be ‘of service to the active worker no less than the studious enquirer into social questions’. (Patrick Geddes, Cities and Town Planning Exhibition, Dublin, 1911, p. ix) An updated version of Geddes’s Cities Exhibition was included in the 1914 Civic Exhibition alongside other diverse exhibits and entertainments.

Around 1902 Geddes had outlined his thinking on these issues in a manuscript Museum: Actual and Possible, a selection of which was recently published in Assemblage. He wrote of the potential for the Index Museum at its largest scale to be ‘not only a Museum and Library, but… also so far a technical and scientific College, and this in the widest sense: that is, with the history of culture, the humanities, the ideals no longer left out… Museum and Gallery, Library and College are thus more and more clearly seen to be capable of essential expression and summary within a single culture-organisation, to be capable of generalised representation in culture within a single building.’ (Geddes, 1989, p. 69) Such a total project is ultimately unrealisable, an eternal quest, but the expansiveness of the thinking and the linkages between disciplines is translated in some degree into Scientia Civitatis; Missing Titles.

Vagabond Reviews, and their collaborators, created a library within a gallery – at once artwork, exhibition, network and catalyst. Although the name Missing Titles implies a lack, the project is in fact open and generous. The inquisitiveness that the project inspires demonstrates the potential for such a library of the imagination. It stimulates discussion among visitors, and provides a potential framework for events and for further imaginary libraries. Viewers – or ‘readers’ – might reflect on what they consider to be urgent knowledge for the city of today, and – who knows – the project may prompt contributors to write the unwritten books of their imagination.


Cities and Town Planning Exhibition, Geddes, G. and Mears, F.C. (1911), Dublin
Town and Country Planning, Abercrombie, P. (3rd edition, 1959) Oxford University Press, London
The Index Museum: Chapters from an Unpublished Manuscript, Geddes, P., in Assemblage (No. 10, December 1989) pp. 65-9

[1] The exhibition took place at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin, Ireland from 6 November 2014 to 29 March 2015.

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