Conceptual art often flirts with the concept of legacy. Artists like Stephen Kaltenbach and Andy Warhol made frequent use of artful time capsules to question the unpredictability of the future and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of everyday life. While standard time capsules cradle fragile newspaper clippings or quirky kitsch, artists’ might outline obscure time-based instructions and celebrate existence itself, rather than objects. These timepieces turn attention toward death, the unknown, and the scope of human life spans.

Like time capsules, libraries collect and protect information, but with the purpose of providing access to ideas. Scottish artist Katie Paterson twists the two concepts together in her recent work, Future Library. Future Library enlists 100 writers to create manuscripts that will be locked away unread for 100 years, then printed on paper harvested from 1,000 trees that were planted last year for this purpose.

Paterson’s Future Library (or Framtidsbiblioteket), begun in 2014, is a public art project commissioned by the Bjørvika Utvikling neighborhood in Oslo, Norway. The artist and volunteers planted the 1,000 trees in the Nordmarka forest, beginning a project that no one alive now will likely live to see finished. Each year, a panel on the Future Library Trust will select a new writer to contribute a manuscript. Each decade, a new trust will form to ensure the project’s completion.

The unpublished texts will be archived in a room designed by Paterson within Oslo’s new Deichmanske Public Library, which opens in 2019. Lined with wood from the trees that were cleared to plant the Future Library forest, this room will allow visitors to view author names and titles, but not the manuscripts. Interested readers may purchase a limited-edition certificate entitling the owner to a complete set of the anthology, printed on the paper made from the mature trees when they are cut down in 2114.

The inaugural writer, Margaret Atwood, is slated to hand over her text at the end of May 2015—the first in a series of works to remain unread by most of us alive today. The future holds people who will read them, however. As the saplings reach toward the sky, chosen writers will record a legacy of words. What story might they tell the next century? Longevity in public art has a new precedent.

A short film about Future Library

from Katie Paterson on Vimeo.

UPDATES:

    • On May 27, 2015, David Mitchell was announced as the second author in the series. He handed over his manuscript in 2016.
    • Margaret Atwood handed over her manuscript, titled Scribbler Moon, in a ceremony on May 26, 2015, as part of a special event with a public walk through the Future Library Forest.
    • As of spring 2017, Oslo’s new Deichmanske Public Library is scheduled to open in 2019. It was originally slated for a 2018 opening.
    • A new Future Library website launched in 2017 allows visitors to travel back and forth through time, through a century of tree rings, exploring authors and ideas, films, and more. The prizewinning site was designed by Hello Monday. 
    • The fourth annual Future Library handover took place on Saturday 2 June, 2018, in Oslo, Norway. Elif Shafak handed over her manuscript to the Mayor of Oslo, Marianne Borgen, and announced its title, The Last Taboo, in the Future Library forest. Music by Mette Henriette, Adrian Myhr and Christian Winther. A public talk and Q&A in the Deichmanske Bibliotek followed. Both events were free and open to all.

Margaret Atwood – the first writer for Future Library

from Katie Paterson on Vimeo.

WRITERS and MANUSCRIPT TITLES:

  • 2014 (announced) – 2015 (manuscript complete): Margaret Atwood (Canada), Scribbler Moon
  • 2015-2016: David Mitchell (United Kingdom), From Me Flows What You Call Time
  • 2016-2017: Sjón (Iceland), As My Brow Brushes On the Tunics of Angels or The Drop Tow, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age
  • 2017-2018: Elif Shafak (Turkey), The Last Taboo
  • 2018-2019: TBA
Jen Dolen is a photographer and is the editorial + communications assistant for Public Art Review and Forecast Public Art.

Featured in Public Art Review #52.
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