In the fall of 2019 the world-renowned author Margaret Atwood nominated twelve young women who in her opinion are shaping the future of the world. One of them is the Scottish artist Katie Paterson. Her artwork, Future Library, is growing in the Nordmarka forest in Oslo and demonstrates the inherent importance and power of art in creating change. The artwork will last for more than one hundred years and barely anyone alive today will get to experience it in its entirety. Time is the core of Future Library. The work is resonating greatly across the world.
Every year for one hundred years a different author will be invited to write something new. Their contributions will become an anthology of books to be printed on paper made from the forest that has grown for a hundred years. The authors are chosen by the board of the Future Library Trust for their contributions to literature and poetry, and for their ability to capture our imaginations and those of future generations. Two essential key words in the selection process are “imagination” and “time”. One hundred authors chosen from all nationalities, languages and ages will be invited to contribute words from all genres and languages. The length, language and format are entirely up to the authors themselves to decide.
The Future Library stems from Bjørvika, a new section of Oslo. The development of the area is one of Norway’s most substantial urban development projects which has been under way for twenty years but is still only halfway done. The traditional, industrial port is being transformed into a city, housing and workplaces. Bjørvika is the location of a new opera house, a new museum for the art of Edvard Munch and the most popular public building in the city, the Deichman Bjørvika library.
In Bjørvika there is also art in the new public spaces, the commons. Those who commission the art have wanted something other than traditional figurative sculpture. They have wanted artists to be inspired by the popular opera house roof with public access, and develop something unique, and something that may add meaning to people’s urban lives and that is relevant for our time.
It has already been nine years since Katie Paterson (born in Glasgow in 1981) was invited to develop a work for Bjørvika. Katie Paterson is known for her conceptual works. Many of them are about time, and she often collaborates with scientists. Her works have included; the broadcasting of the sound of a melting glacier, Vatnajökull, in Iceland, the mapping of all known dead stars, an archive of slides documenting the history of darkness through time, a lightbulb that simulates the experience of moonlight, the burial of a nanosized grain of sand deep in the Sahara desert, and the sending of a re-constructed meteorite back into space.
After spending time in Oslo, and at an old summer farm deep in the woods of the valley Østerdalen, Katie proposed an idea she had had for a long time: A forest, a room, a hundred authors and a hundred years.
I have been the representative of the commissioner of the work since the beginning and have worked closely with the artist to realize the work. The proposal shattered my expectations of what art for Bjørvika could be – the scope of Bjørvika as a location, the financial resources and not the least, how long a work would last. The art project seemed impossible to carry out.
“Future Library” is both generously optimistic and desperately dystopian in the way that it is subject to ecological and social processes we do not know the outcome of. As such it both pushes pompous urban development perspectives acutely to extremes while simultaneously expanding our understanding of what art can be and mean in an open democracy. I suppose that is everything we can ask of art in public spaces.” Arve Røed, the newspaper Dagbladet, October 21st, 2018
A forest grows.
Today a forest grows. Amongst the trees of the large woodlands north of Oslo there is a forest within the forest. The municipality purchased the wooded urban fringe of Nordmarka from private owners in 1889. Later they protected the forest against urban expansion to ensure leisure areas for the population of Oslo and to protect nature against encroachment. A long-range and bold political decision to ensure the protection of our common property.
Spruce (Picea abies), birch (Betula pubescens), pine (Pinus sylvestris) and rowan (Sorbus) thrive in Nordmarka. In May of 2014 small trees were carefully collected from the surrounding forest, sealed in white wax to guard against hungry weevils and re-planted in the little patch of forest. With the guidance of skilled foresters, who have been taking care of Nordmarka for more than a hundred years, Katie Paterson planted a forest of a thousand spruces on a hill facing north. Facing north in order to silence the sounds of the city, and yet close enough to the city for the forest to be within reach. From the last stop on the subway line Frognerseteren it is an easy 25 minute hike. The spruce forest will grow for a hundred years, until 2114. When the trees are fully grown, they will be cut down and made into paper.
“Future Library is a living, breathing, organic artwork, unfolding over 100 years. It will live and breathe through the material growth of the trees — I imagine the tree rings as chapters in a book. The unwritten words, year by year, activated, materialized. The visitor’s experience of being in the forest, changing over decades, being aware of the slow growth of the trees containing the writers’ ideas like an unseen energy — that’s something that has to come into being.” – Katie Paterson
Today there are seven writers in the Future Library. The first was the Canadian author Margaret Atwood (2014), followed by British author David Mitchell (2015), the third was the Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón (2016), the fourth the author and committed political commentator Elif Shafak (2017), and the fifth the South Korean author Han Kang (2018). This year it is Karl Ove Knausgård (2019), the first Norwegian. And in August we announced the Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong as next year’s author.
“One of the most engaging promises of literature is that it speaks both to the present and, if lucky, to the future. So to be a part of Future Library, a project that so courageously hopes for and is built towards a human future nearly a century ahead of us, feels like the daring and exhilarating optimism that is required of any literary work. In a way, this project is no different than the project of living on Earth, in that every death is also the death of a library. So to preserve one in this way feels like the antithesis of dying, and yet we must die to get there.” – Ocean Vuong
A slow room
The manuscripts will be kept, unread and unpublished, in a beautiful, custom designed room on the 4th floor of the Deichman Bjørvika library. Katie Paterson has collaborated with architects Atelier Oslo and Lundhagem in designing the room. The room has been built by the trees that were cut down to make room for the one thousand saplings that today make up the small forest. The room is beautifully built from thousands of wooden blocks, a hundred layers, like growth rings. One hundred illuminated steel boxes with a hand-moulded crystal front will hold one manuscript each. The year and the name of the author is engraved in the glass, but no one will read the manuscripts – not until they are published in 2114. The growing library is part of the rare manuscripts collection at Deichman Bjørvika. The room is open and available to the public, as is the forest.
“The room provides a space for quiet reflection. It is a slow space, allowing visitors to feel time – to be silent and still. It has been designed with simplicity, purity and restraint in mind. Organic shapes like tree rings wind round the space and invite visitors in. The core of the ‘tree’ contains 100 drawers embedded in the wood. These soft, curved shapes contrast with the rest of the library. The Oslo Fjord is visible outside, and visitors can gaze out towards the Future Library forest. Within this quietude they can consider what’s hidden inside the texts, and the depth of time lying ahead; the unborn authors, the sealed words, the generations of people to come that the project speaks to.” – Katie Paterson
Important new stories
I often make my way to that little patch of forest in Nordmarka. Both alone and with others that would like to experience it, and often with foreign reporters that want to write about the work. On these hikes I always meet others who are curious and there to see it for themselves, in winter as well as summer, and sometimes people are obviously not dressed for a hike in the woods. They follow their phone GPS and the forest co-ordinates, which they have found on the project’s website.
Future Library has received enormous international attention since the launch in 2014. The story travels the world unaided. The work resonates with people, independently of country, ethnicity, gender, age, or religion. The reception and the footprint across the world is both unexpected and overwhelming. The longevity of the work makes it unique and different and it has become more important than we could ever have imagined.
Margaret Atwood often talks about this work of art in interviews with the international press. She feels that the reception flows from our need for new, strong stories like Future Library, stories about how the world is changing – and how we may change with it. As she says: «If we can imagine a future through stories – then we can change it, as well.» As human beings we are not exclusively rational beings, and to understand our basic challenges, our storytelling and our language must pass through several layers in our minds. We need stories that can engage, to make people get emotionally involved. Art and culture speak to several layers and can engage our senses, our bodies and minds and make the world “felt”.
I have been contemplating the question of why Future Library is received like this. And why it, up to this point, seems to get a warmer reception abroad than here in Norway. My thinking is that a large part of the reason is that the work is natural, real, earthbound, and authentic. That both the forest and the room are publicly available to all, makes an impression on people outside the Nordic countries. The fact that we still have an abundance of nature and areas available to the public makes us not see the forest for the trees. The work is also about deeply human, universal needs that need to be met, met now. The core of it is time and longevity, but also hope, trust and rituals.
A question of hope, trust and rituals
As a part of the work the authors must commit to coming to the Future Library Forest to hand over their manuscript. This ritual handover is an important part of the work. Every year we invite everyone on a hike in the forest. We walk together behind the author, in the footprints of the authors of the previous years, out into the small clearing. And we do exactly the same things each year: The foresters brew coffee, together we listen to the author reading, the title is announced, and the freshly written text is handed over. From the author, by way of the artist to the municipality of Oslo, that so far has been represented by the city cultural councillor and the mayor. The event is streamed live for people all over the world to take part in the ceremony. Until now the manuscripts have been temporarily kept in the Oslo city archive. Now the room has been completed, the library opened and all six will be moved into their boxes in the room.
Out there in the forest we sit quietly together and listen to the woods. A simple, earthbound ritual. The number of people who wish to participate, is increasing. People return, year after year, and many bring children and grandchildren. It has become an annual tradition and event.
For me, this ritual and the process is what makes the work. I have never been tempted to read the manuscripts and I do not care that I will not experience the end of the project. My most important relationship with the project is to be a part of this simple, quiet, slow-moving, and predictable community out there in the forest, in nature.
When asked by reporters, Margaret Atwood has a number of times answered that the hope and the optimism inherent in the work is what made her agree to be a part of it.
“The Future Library is in itself a very hopeful thing because, number one, you’re assuming that there will be people a hundred years from now.” – Margaret Atwood
This is hopeful, because it points forward and believes that there will be a Norway, that there will be a forest and a library, and that there will be people alive to read what has been written. The books will be a gift to the future.
“If it is possible to call prayer the moment when, in spite of all the uncertainty, we have to take just one step towards the light, in this moment I feel that perhaps this project is something close to a century-long prayer.” – Han Kang
The work reminds us of our own mortality and reflects on our place in a larger context. No one, or very few, of us alive today will survive the work. Earlier this fall Ocean Vuong said to Norwegian broadcasting NRK:
“The Future Library is a beautiful and humble thing, because it reminds us that if our species is to move on, first we have to die.” – Ocean Vuong
And the work is about TRUST. Many reporters have asked me how I, who will be dead long before the work is completed, can feel sure that anyone will be bothered to finish it. My answer to that, is trust. We must have trust in that future generations will accept the challenge and continue the work that we have begun. But there is a reciprocity in this. They must also trust that we, alive today, can be bothered to start projects like Future Library, so that there will be work for them to take on and complete.
A question of time
We are facing large global challenges. Climate and environmental challenges, over-population, a scarcity of resources and the Corona pandemic. It is frequently pointed out that a lack of a long-term perspective in what we are thinking and doing has led us where we are. Short sightedness is the biggest threat to humanity.
Future Library questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now. The timescale is 100 years, not vast in cosmic terms. However, in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting. It is beyond many of our current lifespans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativise.
“Future Library considers this moment now, from a deep-time perspective. It is more important than ever to have hope, trust, and practice ‘timefulness', considering our future generations.” – Katie Paterson
I would like to point out the importance of us being time sensitive and how that may help us develop a sensibility for the long term, methods of thought for timefulness. Methods that make it possible for us to think differently about time and solutions that reach far beyond one generation, so called cathedral thinking.
“Deep time” is a term to describe the history of the Earth, where the timescale is millions of years. The term was first used by the American author John McPhee in his book Basin and Range from 1981.
Few of us can grasp the Earth’s own rhythm and the enormity of the timescale that we are present in. Even if the lifespan of the Earth is beyond our ability to understand, we must try to engage with it to understand the proportions of what we do and the effect it has on the planet. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has published the book titled Timefulness. She points out that it is our inability to take the long view that is at the heart of the major environmental challenges facing the world today. She claims that we to a larger extent must attempt to understand the inner rhythm of the Earth. Thinking in deep time will provide a perspective on a more sustainable future. She says that this is the time of the geologist and her book provides a new way of thinking in and about time, so that we can make better decisions spanning several generations.
Approaching deep time is difficult. Metaphors and art can aid us and make it easier. Katie Paterson’s body of work offers several projects that deal with deep time. One work is a map of All the Dead Stars, a necklace made of 170 fossils cut like pearls, showing the development of the Earth. In 2007 at The Slade School of Fine Art in London Katie Paterson showed her work Vatnajökull (the sound of), a shining neon row of numbers on a wall: 07757001122. The point was as simple as it was spectacular. The number was Katie Paterson’s phone number. If you dialed it, you got to hear a glacier in your ear. Inside the mighty, but rapidly melting, Vatnajökull in Iceland Paterson had placed an underwater microphone connected to her own phone, so for a few seconds your could dwell on the sound of trickling and dripping glacial water. Paterson made the melting away of the big ice available to us all. Quiet and beautiful, but what we now know will not last forever. On June 8th, 2007, Paterson said to The Guardian: “In a way, there is something heartbreaking in this, knowing that you are listening to something magnificent being destroyed. But it is also beautiful, a celebration of nature.”
Another way of thinking, or a method for thinking, is in how we consider our own presence. Elisa Boulding, who died in 1978, was a Norwegian-born, female American sociologist, and she said that today’s modern society suffers from exhaustion and because of that we are so out of breath from dealing with the time we are living in that we are unable to imagine a future. She suggested a simple method: To expand your perception of presence, from here-and-now to two hundred years. A hundred years ahead and a hundred years behind, the individually transferable, generational timespan that stretches from grandchildren to grandparents. A time you can experience. A time that is valid for everyone you feel responsible for. The method forces you to think across generations and creates room for mental journeys, room for imagining.
Stephen Hawking was the one who introduced me to the term “cathedral thinking”, in an article for which he was interviewed in 2016 and where Future Library was mentioned. He said that the most meaningful thing to do is not to leave behind a clock, money or property for our kids to inherit. The important thing is to leave a challenge spanning generations. Projects that are initiated by one generation putting their hope and trust that future generations will commit to the work of completing it. Projects that stretch beyond the human timescale to deliver a sustainable environment for the future.
On April 15th, 2019 Notre-Dame burned and touched the whole world. Merely hours after the fire the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg asked politicians in the EU parliament to deal with the climate and environment crisis “as if it was a house on fire” and appealed to more cathedral thinking.
“Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” - Greta Thunberg
The Earth, the water and the forest are the cathedrals of our time. Future Library, in the forest and in the silent room, creates a space that brings us out of linear time and makes it possible for us to travel mentally and imagine the future. It is urgent that we make quick, important and short term decisions, but also with a longevity in actions that spans generations. Future Library makes us more time competent, both with time as a phenomenon and as meaning. It makes us future literate.
“We’ll take it as it comes”
Karl Ove Knausgård was supposed to be in the forest with his manuscript at the end of May of this year. That had to be postponed due to the corona epidemic, and we optimistically scheduled the handover for the beginning of September. As the time neared, Great Britain was labelled red and travel restrictions made it impossible for the London-based Knausgård to be there. We had a Plan B, in which the manuscript was mailed to Oslo, for a temp to carry into the woods, while we streamed simultaneously from Oslo and London. We imagined the manuscript to be most important and that we could not allow a pandemic to halt the handover. Once more this work taught us something. We received the following by e-mail from Knausgård:
“As a writer, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting and challenging project than Katie Paterson’s The Future Library. To write a book and then leave it to slumber, removed from the world for a hundred years, before being published in a reality we cannot know, sets the mind turning with questions as far-reaching as they are fundamental. Death becomes at once immediate. But so too does life, passed on into the future. People a hundred years from now can only be strangers to us – we’ve no idea what they will be like, what thoughts will be in their minds, what issues will preoccupy them. At the same time, those people will be our descendants, as we are ourselves descendants of the people before us. And no generation starts from zero, each carries with it the insights and experiences of millennia, gathered since the beginning of history – and history begins with writing. However, Katie Paterson’s work of art embraces not only time and writing, but also the forest: these books of the future will be printed on paper made from trees being planted now, which will stand in their own slow time, as much removed from our world, and quite as unread, as the books with which they will one day be united. But of course, our lives are lived not in the great, sweeping lines of literature and writing, life and death, time and the forest, but in the little crinkles and creases, in the world of parentheses and hyphens, a world in which we miss the bus, burn the dinner, buy shoes that are too small and blister our feet, fall asleep with a midge in the room and wake up itching from its bites, misunderstand each other, swell with jealousy or bitterness or rage, feel hard done by, offended or furious, or bubble with primitive joy when the football team we support snatches a lucky 2-1 win over opponents who in all fairness were the more deserving. So when the formal handing over of the manuscript I’ve written for this project, which was supposed to have taken place in May, was postponed until September 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic and all the restrictions that accompanied it, I found the thought of the real world having obstructed the ideal one quite appropriate in a way. For the September 5 ceremony, a plan B was drawn up: in the event that circumstances prevented me from handing over the book in a forest outside Oslo, we would make use of live video streaming instead, establishing a kind of technological bridge between London and Nordmarka. For me though, the forest is an important part of this project, as too is our own presence – our being here, in the now, in contrast to our total absence by the time the book is published – so for that reason I’m happy about the new plan that has now been laid: we’ll take things as they come, and as soon as the infection rates make it possible, we’ll carry out the official handing over of the book in the forest, in the good old-fashioned way, from one hand to another, hopefully under a dark sky, in a forest illuminated by snow, perhaps too in the glow of a crackling campfire …” – Karl Ove Knausgård