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In which we meet Brooklyn-based artist Nina Katchadourian in Lawrence, Kansas, at the former home of American writer William S. Burroughs (1914 - 1997). Nina takes us on her journey of sorting Burroughs's book collection and challenges you to sort some books yourself!

Episode 13 Instructions:

1. Choose a person you know or would like to know better
2. Take a look at/through their library
3. Make 3 stacks of books to develop a portrait of the person
4. Upload it to your social media platform of choice using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (your work might be featured in a future episode)

Learn more about Nina's work: http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/

And read about William S. Burroughs: http://www.burroughs100.com/

Special thanks to The Lawrence Art Center, William Burroughs Communications, Yuri Zupancic, and Tom King, for the assistance in making Nina's project and this episode happen.
Today, we're meeting with Brooklyn-based artist Nina Katchadourian, but as you can tell, this is not Brooklyn. We've met her here in Lawrence, Kansas, where she's working on a new project. 
 
Nina's works address a wide range of ideas, but throughout her career, she has consistently engaged with the everyday. 
 
Her series "Seat Assignment" makes use of overlooked materials and her spare time during her plane flights around the world. The photos range from surprisingly moving landscapes to bathroom selfies that could pass for fifteenth century Flemish portraiture, and for the past twenty years, Nina has been working on a series called "Sorted Books". Working with collections small and large, she immerses herself in libraries to select, stack, and photograph groupings of books so that the titles on their spines can be read in sequence. What results are concise, clever visual poems that are often revealing about the owner of the books.
 
Right now, Nina has the amazing opportunity of accessing the personal library of American writer William S. Burroughs, and we're standing outside of the home where he spent the last years of his life. So, let's go talk to Nina and see what she's finding out about Burroughs through his books.
 
Hi. I'm Nina Katchadourian and this is your Art Assignment.
 
We are sitting in William S. Burroughs' house, where he lived for the last sixteen years of his life in Lawrence, Kansas, and given the wild life that this guy led, it's really interesting to me that this house is a very sweet red and white cottage with a beautiful garden all around it. It's the most peaceful place you can imagine. 
 
Um, the reason I'm here is because I- I was very lucky to be granted permission to work with William Burroughs' books to make a sorted books project.
 
I read William Burroughs in college a little bit as part of a Comp Lit class, you know, like lots of college students do, and I'm not in any way a kind of William Burroughs scholar or William Burroughs geek. I'm- I- I have been a little bit self-conscious about that coming here and had to make some decisions a while ago about whether I wanted to go into a huge geek-out research effort in advance of coming here and decided that since one of the things about the sorted books project is that you get to know a person through their books, that there might actually be something interesting about encountering him as a person who I get to know primarily through his books and not to kind of over- um, educate myself in advance of coming and that has been a really interesting part of the last two days.
 
It's made me think a lot about, you know, were I to drop dead tomorrow, what would people make of my book collection? You know, I have a kind of an odd library, I think, and, uh, maybe there aren't books that I'd be so happy for people to know that I own. 
 
But I think we all have some guilty-pleasure books in our life. In other words, books that we really love and we have around, but maybe they don't sort of show the public side of us that we'd like people to always see.
 
So, your assignment is to work in somebody's library who you know or that you would like to know better and to make a portrait of them by making three clusters of books. Each cluster can have as many different books in it as you want, but you have to think a lot about the physical qualities of the books and make sure that your book stack reads clearly. You might want to line up the titles flush-left and in the end, it should be a portrait of that person.
 
John: So, as you know, Sarah, I am obsessed with, uh, portraits that are not about physical resemblance.
 
Sarah: Yeah, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres's heartbreaking and beautiful portrait of his partner, Ross, who died of AIDS, where he made this pile of candy that corresponded to Ross's ideal body weight.
 
John: Yeah, and then, uh, people are encouraged to- to take candy from the museum or gallery and then- and then it's constantly replenished. It's really beautiful.
 
Sarah: Ugh, it's just gutting.
 
John: And there's also that, uh, portrait of William Carlos Williams that's just a big- all the fives.
 
Sarah: Oh, right, Charles Demuth's abstract portrait "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" from 1928 that relates to Williams's poem "The Great Figure"
 
John: Yeah, it occurs to me there are a lot of literary connections for this assignment, right?
 
Sarah: Right. There's William Burroughs's cut up technique itself.
 
John: Yeah, but there's also, like, Gertrude Stein's Word Portraits, when she had these ways of describing people, who were very non-narrative, used fragments, made kind of descriptive essays of people?
 
Sarah: Right. Yeah. True, but there's something we're not getting at here, and that's the sense of assemblage or montage that's going on with this work. I'm thinking of artists like Christian Marclay, who-- who collages film and digital media in similar ways to Nina.
 
His 1995 piece Telephones pulled together clips of one sided phone conversations from movies in a totally brilliant way.
 
John: So he was doing mash-ups before there were mash-ups, basically. 
 
Sarah: Right. But what we're homing in on here is the sorting part of this sorting books activity that is all about archiving. Archiving is pretty big these days in art. 
 
John: Is it now?
 
Sarah: OK, so an archive is a collection of documents providing information about something, right? Like in this case we have William S. Burroughs's books, which give us some information about him as a writer and a person.
 
Everyone's favorite comedian Michel Foucault pointed out that "Studying archives is learning about the past through its material remains."
 
"The archaeologist of knowledge," he says "tries to reconstruct the archive to show how we relate to the past and construct meaning around it."
 
Contemporary artists working working this way are described by art historian Hal Foster as "Having an archival impulse." He sees more and more artists taking information as kind of a ready-made material, inventorying it, and re-ordering it. 
 
Like Thomas Hirschhorn, or remember Deb Sokolow?
Whether we're Tumbling cat pictures from 1960s, scrap booking, or sorting books, Foster calls this impulse an attempt "to probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs, to ascertain what might remain for the present."
 
Nina's project takes a past and gives it a present. It's not a portrait, but it is a reminder that archives, while meaningful, are also incomplete, accidental, and at times absurd.
 
Nina: I think that the answer to why do it is really a book cluster itself that I made many years ago and they say "What is Art?" and the answer is "Close Observation". And I really believe that. 
 
I think that what every artist does in some way is to hone in on something in the world that they have a strong attraction to, or reaction to, and to translate that somehow, in a way that allows them to start a conversation with an audience member, with a viewer. It could be one viewer, it could be ten thousand. It hardly matters. But I think that's what art is; it's a communicational act that kind of lobs out the first question that can become a conversation.
 
So, that's why I do this. I do this because I think it's worth looking more closely at many things, but in this instance at books and at our own relationship to them and and at someone else's relationship to them.
 
The very first phase is always a kind of getting-to-know-you phase where I look at every single book that's there, I make long elaborate lists of titles that are interesting to me that might be useful. It's almost a way for me of memorizing the collection, and it's been really important to do that by physically writing things down. I have a clipboard, I have lists.
 
Then there's the second phase where I take titles that continuously kind of jump out at me and transcribe them onto index cards. And then I spend a lot of time moving index cards around and seeing what works with what. 
 
And the very last stage is actually moving the books themselves. This system has evolved partially because it means I don't have to put a ton of books back at the end and displace somebody's library in very drastic ways. 
 
One really important part of the sorted books project has always been that I'm thinking about the books as physical things, as sculptural objects, as things that have weight and size, and mass and heft, and, um, wear and tear and font sizes and colors. So I'm always trying to think of this as sculpture also, and it's not just about the information not just about the writing. This wouldn't be a project, for example, that I would ever want to do by just listing the titles of the books. It's-it's really important that it be stuff that's been moved around. 
 
Handgun Reloading Manual next to Was Mozart Poisoned? and then The Domestic Cat, which, um, those are three pretty great titles.