All Roads Led to Rome. Fine, And Then What?

 

by Davide Daninos

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

– T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’, 1934[1].

 

At the beginning of the last century – long before the invention of modern computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web – a Belgian former lawyer, yet to become father of Information Science, was precociously planning a networked utopian society, where knowledge and ideas would be easily conveyed through the new media of modernity. Moving images, microfilms, audio recordings and telephones would all be transferred from a universal database directly to anyone comfortably sitting 'in his armchair', thanks to a cerveau méchanique (still yet to be invented) capable of receiving and displaying such data.

 

His name was Paul Otlet, and his first database was called “The Universal Bibliography” (Répertoire Bibliographique Universel), as its purpose was to become nothing less than 'an inventory of all that has been written at all times, in all languages, and on all subjects'[2] . Built together with Henry La Fontaine, it also worked as a public "search engine" inside the newly founded International Institute of Bibliography (Institute International de Bibliographie), which had been created with the support of the Belgian government. Everyone could process a query and receive copies of their card catalogue and of any requested manuscript, either

directly during business hours, or remotely through the postal service (by adding a small fee for cover the costs)[3]. It was 1895, and by the end of the

Paul Otlet, Traité de documentation. Le livre sur le

livre. Theorie et pratique, 1934: p. 41.

 

19th century this “universal” collection consisted already of 3 million index cards and manuscripts.

 

More than one century and 4.41 billion webpages later [4], artists such as Teresa Cos find themselves still fascinated in the potential of databases and search engines; still looking for new ways to organize information and knowledge in order to achieve poetry from a "simple" query.

 

Teresa Cos’ online-based project All Roads Lead to Rome. Yes, But Where Exactly? stages a subjective Internet archive as a work of art (or vice versa). Cos has decided to share with a world wide audience the work she produced for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (Monditalia section) [5],  willing to test the Internet as a new medium to convey such an outcome.

 

Both the website and the Monditalia installation share title and subject, although their extension and complexity are comparatively different: the whole Venice project consisted of an immersive environment, comprising a sound piece, an interactive video projection, a mixed-media sculpture and a diagram, all surrounded by a basic and rather symbolic architectural scene. On the other hand the website focuses only on the content (i.e. the information) shown through the diagram, arranged in a very different form.

 

Both projects are investigating today’s actuality of the ancient proverb 'all roads lead to Rome'

Teresa Cos, All Roads Lead to Rome. Yes, But Where Exactly? 2014, installation detail.

meaning different paths could bring to the same goal. Testing such a popular statement has meant for the artist to face  both its  metaphorical and  straight application: we find Cos "measuring" the centre of Rome, to locate where all these roads converge to and, while at it, inquiring about the actual ability of today’s principal ways of communication to really connect places, people and concepts[6]. Hypertexts and hyperlinks – the Internet’s very core – are here understood as the most advanced upgrade of the ancient means of communication, the actual roads that led to Rome.

 

In order to achieve such measurement, Cos, driven by a scientific attitude, started this journey backwards: once she located the centre of the Italian capital city in Piazza del Campidoglio, she began to follow all the roads she could find that ended there, changing direction at every juncture or crossroads[7]. The result of this utopian yet familiar never ending search is clearly depicted in the stunning visual composition of the diagram aforementioned, which collects and connects every milestone – namely each Wikipedia entry – she has encountered alongside the road in her travel.

 

Every entry has assumed in the diagram the shape of an index card[8]. Each concept, person, place, or fact is now reproduced with a very synthetic design and classification: a title, a short description and an image, simply outlined with a perfect black trace. In the website the same content is instead represented without framing; it almost comes as

 

plain text. It shows firstly the source in Wikipedia, followed by the same short descriptions or quotations, as well as the same images depicting the subjects. Eventually, new links to closely connections are listed, to help, together with a numerical index, our journey.

 

Both diagram and website show a very basic yet keenly prepared design, that resemble – miming – the source of its own information. If the diagram becomes a mimicry of the Internet plain aesthetics, the website is then a perfect chameleon, a mise en abyme of the same object of her own critique: data and databases.

 

In fact, if the diagram represents in our Belle-epoquesque metaphor the index cards, all collected and displayed into a same level, then Cos’ website is altogether the filing cabinet in itself. Through this new form, she gives us access directly to the database, without a given definition, and, as once she was, without a previous goal. We are now in charge to create our own paths, our collection of milestones, on our way to Rome.

 

 

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[1] Eliot, 1963: 147.

[2] Otlet, quoted in Rayward, 1975: 113. See also Otlet, 1934.

[3] See Wright, 2014: 71-78.

 

 

[4] Source: worldwidewebsize.com [access 05  February 2015].

[5] 14th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Fundamentals, directed by Rem Koolhaas, 7 June-23 November 2014, Venice

[6] Therefore this ancient saying represents name and topic of both the artworks, as well as their own structure and methodology (the one that subtends their creation and the one suggested for their own contemplation).

[7] To clarify, following the previous order of ideas I’m now using quite freely the word ‘road’ in place of ‘link’.

[8] Resembling in a fascinating yet updated way Conrad Gessner’s slips of paper that he used to compose his own Bibliotheca Universalis, way back before Otlet and La Fontaine, in 1545.

 

 

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References

 

Thomas Stearns Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

 

Paul Otlet, Traité de documentation. Le livre sur le livre. Theorie et pratique. Bruxelles: Editiones Mundaneum-Palais Mondial, 1934.

 

Warden Boyd Rayward, The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and

International Organization. Moscow: VINITI for the

International Federation for Documentation, 1975.

 

Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.