A new library with an unusual twist opens in Cambridge this week as part of the Cambridge Festival 2023. The Cambridge Library of the Great Silence exhibition will house a collection not of books, but of objects.
We asked the Library’s founder, San Francisco-based conceptual artist and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and Cambridge-based artist, podcaster, and exhibition co-curator Robert Good a series of questions about the upcoming exhibition, which takes place at the Alison Richard Building from 17 March to 14 April 2023 and is open from 9:00 – 17:00 on weekdays.
Q: Jonathon, the Library of the Great Silence is a longstanding project of yours, can you tell us more about it?
Jonathon Keats: For the past century, humans have been listening attentively for messages from beings elsewhere in the universe. We’ve heard nothing. One explanation is that we’re alone. Even more haunting is the possibility that civilizations tend to self-destruct when they reach the level of complexity needed to make their presence known across the cosmos. This hypothesis was first ventured during the Cold War – coincident with the period when early episodes of I Love Lucy were first detectable in other star systems – and has only come to be more plausible as we face ever greater existential threats here on Earth.
I was thinking about the so-called Great Silence when I became an artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute a couple of years ago. And I asked myself: What if the silence were broken? If we’re not alone, and we’re visited by aliens, what should we discuss with them? Existential risk struck me as the most urgent subject, and also the most pertinent to all parties. It seems to me likely that we’ve managed to overcome some threats to our existence that may lie ahead for others and vice versa. I decided to build a library as a center for interstellar research about survival and flourishing.
Q: How did the Library of the Great Silence come to Cambridge?
Robert Good: I met Jonathon last year on a research visit to Silicon Valley. As part of my prep I had been looking at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) website and saw that Jonathon was doing interesting things, so I asked to meet him. I seem to remember we had a great evening in San Francisco putting the world to rights, and we have kept in touch ever since. I can’t remember who suggested bringing the Library to Cambridge, but it seemed like a good thing to do!
Q: How did you conceive the theme of this exhibition?
JK: The Library of the Great Silence is an epic thought experiment in the form of an institution intended to persist through deep time. It’s open to all beings, regardless of their origin. For that reason, the library does not collect books, which tend to require literacy in English or another human language to be intelligible. Instead, the library comprises a collection of objects that have been implicated in and are representative of transformations here on Earth. These range from a palaeolithic handaxe to a 19th-century view camera such as those used in land surveys to build the railroads. One of the most recent items is a Covid antigen home test.
Because these objects are simply themselves, and not represented symbolically, their meaning is hypothetically accessible to all beings everywhere. In any case, the lack of symbolism undercuts many of the assumptions latent in the languages we speak.
Q: What can we expect from the exhibition?
RG: The exhibition will show a range of transformative objects that have been submitted to the Library. And I will be talking to people about the ideas behind the Library for a new podcast mini-series.
Q: How did you decide to display the exhibition?
JK: We began this initiative with a call for people to nominate objects. I also developed apparatus to silently interact with these objects, to create concepts, and to deliberate about the consequences of the transformations instantiated by the objects. By these means, I believe we can come to a deeper understanding of the causes of existentially threatening phenomena such as overreach. We can also potentially find new ways to thrive.
Q: Will there be any related events and activities?
RG: Apart from the exhibition itself and the podcast, I will be in conversation with Jonathon to discuss with him the objects that we have put together and maybe to see if we can find some common threads linking them together – how does the Cambridge branch of the library compare to others that Jonathon has set up?
Q: Who would this exhibition be of interest to?
RG: The Library is a fun project with serious intent: we need to find some new ways of thinking in order to tackle some of the existential threats that we find ourselves currently facing, so this exhibition will appeal to anyone who wants to try and get a fresh angle on creative thought.
JK: Well, I’d say that the exhibition will be of interest to everyone. That said, ‘everyone’ is less than straightforward. I have no reason to believe that extraterrestrials showed up in Italy a couple of years ago when I prototyped a branch library at an archaeological site in Abruzzo, nor when I opened temporary branches in Munich, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. I think it’s highly unlikely that extraterrestrials will enter the library while I’m still alive. If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the intended longevity of the library will increase the likelihood of engagement by aliens by extending the span of opportunity. Perhaps this will provide some small motivation for us to be more responsible, in order for humankind still to be around to greet them.
But ultimately I don’t think the arrival of extraterrestrials, or even their existence, is so important. What matters most is that we humans come together to engage the problems we all face and that we do so with open minds. The Library of the Great Silence is a thought experiment instantiating an alternate reality in which beings everywhere can solve problems together. It’s a provocation and a model for public engagement. If it brings earthlings to undertake the collective introspection needed for planetary wisdom, the thought experiment will no longer be necessary.
Q: Where can we find out more?
You can find out more on the website of the Library’s Cambridge branch.
Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher, artist, and writer whose conceptually-driven transdisciplinary projects explore all aspects of society, adapting methods from the sciences and the humanities. He is the author of six books on subjects ranging from science and technology to art and design – most recently You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, published by Oxford University Press – and is the author of a weekly online arts column for Forbes. He is a research associate at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, a fellow at the Berggruen Institute, a research fellow at the Highland Institute and the Long Now Foundation, a visiting scholar at San José State University’s CADRE Laboratory for New Media, a consulting philosopher at Earth Law Center, and an artist-in-residence at Hyundai, the SETI Institute, and UC San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center. A monograph about his work at the intersection of philosophy and art, Thought Experiments, was recently published by Hirmer Verlag.
Robert Good is an artist based in Cambridge UK who is interested in the problems of knowledge and the limitations of language. He is host of the podcast Something to Do With Art and editor of A New Dictionary of Art. Current projects include ‘A Cybernetic Meadow’, which will consider the impact of technology on our lives.