It is June 2, 2017 at Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo. A group of people walk single file to the chosen spot, where one thousand trees were planted in 2014. Artists, writers, visitors, and forest rangers sit in a circle. Icelandic poet Sjón hands over a brown wooden box to artist Katie Paterson, containing his unpublished manuscript that won’t be read until 2114.
“What in text makes it timeless?”
This was the question Sjón posed when he was invited to contribute a manuscript for Future Library, an ambitious project conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, commissioned by Bjørvika Utvikling, and supported by the city of Oslo, Norway.
Future Library is a public artwork as well as a conceptual art piece comprising literature and time. In 2014, a thousand trees were planted in Nordmarka, a forest in Oslo. The trees will eventually become the paper for an anthology of books to be printed in a hundred years time. A writer will contribute a text every year and hand it over at a special ceremony in the Norwegian forest. Between now and 2114, the writings will be held by the Future Library Trust, unpublished and unread until that year.
One of Future Library’s most significant phases is the ceremony in which each author—selected annually by The Future Library Trust’s Committee—entrusts Paterson with his or her writing. The subtle ritual, conceived by Paterson, is linked with her practice, in which she investigates universal questions regarding nature, outer space, and time. For example, her piece Inside this Desert (2010), where a grain of sand from the Sahara Desert was chiseled to 0.00005mm using nanotechnology, then taken back and buried deep under the ground of the Sahara Desert. Her poetic work condenses immense questionings into minimal, simple acts.
To date, only three writers have contributed to Future Library. The Canadian novelist and essayist Margaret Atwood, the British novelist David Mitchell, and Icelandic poet Sjón. In a ceremony this past June, Sjón handed his manuscript over to Katie Paterson and the Future Library Trust, and read the title aloud. This is the only part we’ll know about it: “VII As My Brow Brushes On The Tunics Of Angels, or The Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age.”
The project, mysterious and poetic, acquires new meanings every year through each contribution, like a palimpsest of time and narratives of unknown projections. Future Library’s conceptual framework has led the three contributing authors to muse about the role of the author and the audience, on the way language “erodes” through geographic, economic, and sociopolitical dynamics responding to its time.
“Am I a writer of my times? Who do I write for? How much does the response of the reader matter to me?” said Sjón, wondering about the unexpected relationship with his potential readers, and the connection—and disconnection—between the future and us. Thinking back 100 years to 1917, could Eliot or Pound have imagined how we employ language writing endlessly on our smartphones with extreme abbreviations or language cross-overs, and how these forms of writing have adapted to literary forms like Daniel Borzutzky’s or Kenneth Goldsmith’s use of poetry?
Have these authors written their pieces imagining the audience to whom they’re speaking to while writing? Or does writing address only its current time? David Mitchell’s manuscript, beautifully titled From Me Flows What You Call Time, as well as Atwood’s Scribbler Moon, might be composed of one word, small poems, or a massive novel. Except for the authors, no one knows what these boxes hold.
The one hundred manuscripts will be held in a room in Oslo’s Deichman Public Library, designed by Paterson and architects Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo. The library will open in 2019 in Bjørvika, Oslo. Manuscripts will only be on display in the same boxes in which they were handed over during each annual ceremony.
It is no surprise that the etymology of the word book, from the German root “beech,” means “a large forest tree.” Future Library invites us to await the trees’ growth, as we consciously contemplate the simultaneous transformation and growth of language and the readers of the future. Ultimately, “There’s something magical about it. It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years,” said Margaret Atwood.
As the Future Library Trust Chair Anne Beate stated at the recent ceremony, “This is a project of hope for the future to come, for humanity,” addressing the awareness of global crises regarding earth’s lifespan and humanity’s compromise with it, but also imagining a new generation of readers seeking answers of the past.