When studying the collection at MoMA Library, we often reveal compelling stories of how certain books were produced and how these objects travelled through the world. With experimental art and design publications of the 20th century, part of the story of a book’s history relates to its circulation from the hands of friends to a wider audience, into the collections of museums and libraries. This kind of narrative is consistently of interest to researchers and staff – we study these pathways that books travel and these movements of books and magazines often reveal the movement of ideas across space and the relationships between artists, designers, and other interlocutors.
Detail from Inflatocookbook (Ant Farm, 1971).
About a year ago, I was researching a fairly recent acquisition, the Inflatocookbook, by the collective Ant Farm. The publication is equal parts manual, assemblage art, and catalog of the collective’s inflatable installations up to that point. While consulting an Ant Farm exhibition catalog, I stumbled across a description of an inflatable that they had produced in the Saline Valley in California for the editors of the Whole Earth Catalog in 1971. The inflatable, named The Pillow, was constructed to house the whole production team of the catalog while they assembled an issue. This was intriguing – I was now curious about the actual catalog that Stewart Brand, editor and founder, and others produced while staying in a bubble in the desert. I went to our stacks and pulled our Whole Earth Catalog issues. They did not give any indication of being produced in the desert. However, while reviewing the catalogs, I did notice a listing for the Inflatocookbook in the Shelter and Land Use section of the catalog. Surrounding this listing were many other publications – in fact I was reminded that the primary materials described in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog were books. There were books by Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and Norbert Wiener, John Cage, Archigram, Frei Otto, a listing for the new media serial Radical Software, and the Gyogy Kepes series published by George Braziler - Vision and Values. From here, I began to envision an assemblage of these books – a tableau of titles that manifested the crazy quilt variety in each edition of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Listing in the Whole Earth Epilog (Point Foundation, 1974)
As this idea for an exhibition took form, I also dwelt on the idea of the Catalog as a transitional print object that prefigured digital user networks and the electronic feedback of websites and blogs. In its pages, readers were encouraged to offer suggestions and contribute content, and reader’s letters were often published. By assembling these resources, Stewart Brand conceived the publication as an access technology that promoted self-education and distribution of materials in innovative ways. The pages of the catalog also presented an extended conversation on the subject of self-publishing - offering tips, strategies and advice on the best ways to conceive and distribute self-published projects. All of these ideas make the Whole Earth Catalog a bibliographically compelling tome, especially as it relates back to the publication history of a variety of books in the MoMA library collections and to the increased feasibility of self-publishing in the 1960s. This exhibition of books from the Whole Earth Catalog is now on display in the mezzanine of the Cullman Education building through July 26. Keep an eye out for the January 1971 “Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog” which was produced in a bubble in the desert! Be sure to check out the show and also this recent review in the New York Times.
David Senior, Bibliographer, The Museum of Modern Art Library