Library of Visual Phenomena: Collecting the Unpredictable

Records of War

The collection of Biblioteka Naochnykh Yavyshch [ukr.: Бібліотека Наочних Явищ – Library of Visual Phenomena] is remarkable: 600 (and counting) copies of vernacular image books, most of them handmade in an edition of one. Olga Gaidash, Eugene Shimalsky, and Tasia Shpil launched the library in Kyiv in 2020, but they’d been collecting visual books sold on OLX, Viber chats, and flea markets for years before then. Currently the founders are digitizing all materials to enable public access to the library – after three years of conceptualizing, categorizing, and relocating the collection to Berlin. The space that was originally allotted to it in central Kyiv now serves as the office of an NGO and a medical storage – a never-realized library in Kyiv now hosts volunteers delivering medical aid to regions of Ukraine close to the frontline. For V/A’s thematic focus on opulence, Daša Anosova talked to the project’s founders.

Text Daša Anosova
Images Бібліотека Наочних Явищ

A convolute of newspapers recounting various tragedies; a notebook with diagrams and instructions by a knitting teacher; a catalogue of ancient mounds; Transcarpathian folk ceramics; a gun-powder album. The Library of Visual Phenomena, as well as the individual copies, enable new interpretations of the visual through new associations. Such a library-cum-collage of imagery has a surprising ability to interact directly with the pre-internet memory storage; the images and visual sequences feel cinematic but in no way nostalgic. When recording this conversation we recall cut-up techniques of writing – Burroughs and Kathy Acker, Borges’s celestial emporium of benevolent knowledge, Ouredník’s Europeana – and the “age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.” I personally read this archive as a visual non-history of our collective (post-) Soviet Ukrainian past.

Olya is a part of the artist duo Troyanda, and she’s been practicing art independently and currently studying at the “F for Fact” program at the Sandberg Institute. Eugene is one of the hosts of the Garden.Something.Meeting. podcast; he is one of the co-founders of the Ukho agency among other projects. I’ve known Eugene and Olya for a couple of years which we spent conceptualizing and enacting art-related projects in Kyiv. It was with them that I first found myself in Berlin at the beginning of 2022 in the middle of crumbling normality. Then we launched Records of War, which is a collection and also an archive of diaries and memories.

I spoke with Olya and Eugene in August 2023 to record their views on collecting vernacular books and ongoing research that addresses personal archives as places of a critical artistic practice. Below is a heavily edited version of my conversation with them, offering the context of the collective practice that moves from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject.

Color in Gardens. 1968. Delphin Verlag, Stuttgart and Zürich. A cover of a German book on the use of color in gardening Olya found at a Berlin flea market.

DASA ANOSOVA This might sound completely random, but why don’t we start with gardens?

Gardening seems to inform many of the activities that you both are involved in. The most recent example is the first episode of Eugene’s podcast, where you highlight the concept of a garden as a pocket of control and a metaphor for continuity. So, here I have two questions: first, what is this obsession with gardens, and second, do you understand the Library of Visual Phenomena as a metaphorical garden as well?

[T]he garden of our library is full of weeds, and some would even argue it’s weeds only.

EUGENE SHIMALSKY Maybe not an obsession, just a suitable metaphor for a lot of things. We certainly incorporate it differently into our lives or artistic practices, but we share a curiosity for what comes next, and we seem to agree on cultivation methods. The gardener’s role has social and political importance: bottom-up movement, work at the grassroots level, care, and all that. The metaphor will disintegrate if I elaborate too much, but the garden of our library is full of weeds, and some would even argue it’s weeds only.

DA I have a soft spot for artistic/research practices that aren’t project-based and result-driven, and I like to apply the metaphor of a living organism to such activities. They develop like a tree, independently. A tree is never complete, it grows and dies, and there is no predetermined “result,” only an algorithm of its development. 

OLGA GAIDASH Yes, this metaphor is also applicable to the functionality of the collection. Who is this library for? The garden is there for others, too, but what they will do there is up to them. When we established the library, we wanted to collect visual books that could be interesting for anyone conducting visual research: designers, artists, scholars. Now the collection and the circumstances have changed, so I’m more interested in the continuity and causality of the process. 

ES I am interested in working with the material already collected, to come up with scenarios of how this collection could be of use to others, for example, how it could be applied in an art practice or intellectual search, whatever that means. How it could get to someone’s heart. 

If we stick to the gardening metaphor, I see the DIY books we’ve been collecting as ideal “gardens.” They only require the most basic “seeds” and the “soil” they are “growing” on isn’t conventional or market-friendly whatsoever; rather, it is antisocial and radically individual, minimally influenced by institutions of power.

DA Most of the items in your collection have been made by people with no formal artistic training who create these pieces with no regard to market or current trends. I love the fact that the authors organize visual imagery with no intention to make content out of it, but this also makes me think of the widely detested practice of researching and collecting so-called “outsider,” “raw,” or “naive” art. In our private conversations we brutally criticize the commodification of marginal aesthetics, especially in those cases when such aesthetics are packed into an easily marketable object of design. I wonder how you approach collecting and avoiding falling into an elitist fascination with the exotic.

OG We don’t use any clear categories when looking for new books, nor are we interested in branding or selling them. And for me, this is neither marginal nor outsider art. I find it very interesting that not all things can always be calibrated or correctly categorized. We often joke that our categories are more like Borges’ classification of the emperor’s animals.

We do not understand art from the margins as something exotic at all.

ES We do not understand art from the margins as something exotic at all. For me, the pieces are personal entropies or portable universes that can unlock the unexpected in one’s research. What sort of ‘bookmarks’ the next person puts in is not immediately obvious. For instance, these Turbo chewing-gum wrappers or the Mickey Mouse drawing labeled Morg [ukr. морг – morgue] – the combination of these has the potential to manifest something new.

DA Do you ever speak with the people who make the books?

OG I thought about interviewing everyone, and we’ve been saving packaging as well. And yeah, just yesterday I talked for an hour with Ivan from the Rivne region, who made “Tragedii” [ukr.: трагедії – tragedies], “Kinets Soyuzu Amin’” [Кінець Союзу Амінь – The End of The Union Amen], and 6 volumes of “Ukraino Vstavai” [ukr.: Україно, вставай! Raise, Ukraine]. His main source of income currently is selling stuff that he’s been collecting all his life: lottery tickets, books, mousetraps, baseboards – I mean, everything. I told him straightaway I liked what he was doing and that I’d shown his work to many friends. He just laughed in response and said we don’t know what we’re talking about. “I’m just a regular man and haven’t done anything.”

DA I think the main reason why I enjoy your collection so much is its unpredictability. When I opened the archive, the first thing I saw was a book on the defects of bread which has outstanding visuals. It made me think about the last time I stumbled upon an unexpected visual project that wasn’t advertising anything on the internet, and obviously I struggled as there are no accidents in our Instagram echo chambers where every piece of information and every path is driven by algorithm-based advertising logic.

Our collection is subjective, serendipitous even.

A graduation book with wishes for the teacher Boris Parfirovich Onasenkov by 9th-grade students.

OG Well, our collection is subjective, serendipitous even. We didn’t plan anything. Many books lost their purpose, such as the medical ones, and thus their visual component came forward and turned out to be more interesting than their function. I call this category “non-intentional artbooks.” I am interested in the idea of implementing unexpected tags and references in a limited collection to encourage following someone’s steps and let miracles happen. Indeed, it’s harder to do this when confronted with the vast lump of information online.

A graduation book with wishes for the teacher Boris Parfirovich Onasenkov by 9th-grade students.

In the process we started researching handmade albums, self-published stuff, and everything unusual and uncategorized. They occupy an empty shelf between zines, scrapbooks, artbooks, etc. Albums, diaries, collections of chewing-gum wrappers, calendars, you name it. Once we bought a bag of notebooks from Vera, a mathematician from Poltava. She’s been making them all her life. She says she’s constantly cutting and gluing something. So, these notebooks are about absolutely everything and anything. We call them “parallel encyclopedias.” It’s difficult to understand what exactly interests Vera. Tests? Hares? Riddles? Tips? Nature? Cooking? Mathematics? 

DA Do you have a favorite?

OG Maybe I could select around 10 examples, but if I need to name one, then it’s this notebook with chewing gums and dead Smoorphs, just because it was completely unpredictable. We bought all those envelopes for 10 hryvnas, and no one knew what was inside, and there it was, this bizarre thing with a morgue. Really existential.

ES I do love many of the “unintentional art books”; however, it’s the matrix of all of them that excites me the most. To borrow a term from biology, the “inherited” genetics is cool (pseudo-inherited, since you automatically inherit all of these once you enter the library), but the modifiable and casual “epigenetic” component (determined by stuff you think or do as reader/viewer) is more immediate and spontaneous. 

DA What is your plan for making the library public? Are you thinking of moving it to an open physical space?

Handmade collage book about space, unknown author, Ukraine.

OG The initial idea was born because there was a space available. There was a quiet hidden flat right below our place in central Kyiv, and when we got it, we understood it was nothing other than a library. The library has been around for three years already, but no one knows about it, and it has never been in its allotted space. The flat now hosts an NGO and their medicine stock, and the books… the books are stacked in apartments, partially moved to Berlin, and partially digitized in folders and clouds. We want to make the collection public; it seems that the website and digitization is a necessary decision during the war.

DA Has your approach to collecting changed since the war? How has the relocation affected the practice?

A travel album with photos and postcards. “Skandinavien-Fahrt 19.06-16.07, 1958”.

ES The focus has become a Ukrainian one for sure. We used to be hesitant about how to adjust this focus at all. Now it is much more important, but I’m unsure if this will affect any library subcategories. I have the feeling that diasporic self-publishing will disappear eventually; some stuff is on sale but not as much as you’d imagine. Diasporiana is an amazing digital archive, but there isn’t much available in hard copies. All those past projects had the function of not only exporting culture but also producing it. What they were doing was also banned in Soviet Ukraine, and their projects certainly were exclusively analog. 

You never know when a new-found book will establish a new category or a new library.

Collection of calendars, unknown author, Ukraine.

OG Since 2022 we’ve been collecting photographs of Japanese libraries after the earthquake. Usually they are photos of empty shelves deep in piles of books. We find it interesting to think of natural phenomena as a way of categorizing. In our case, the unpredictability of the search is an ordering device. Tasia once prompted “Sodom and Gomorrah” to the OLX search engine and found one of our favorite books, the one you’re talking about, on the defects of bread, because the book author’s last name is Sodomska. You never know when a new-found book will establish a new category or a new library.

Sometimes collecting turns into an anthropological study, and we see a lot of sensitivity and loneliness in the works. In times of war, catastrophic loss and destruction, collecting seems like an act of resistance. 

OG On 22 February 2022 Tasia found an ad on OLX that was advertising 8 kilos of photos of exhibition cats, dogs, and horses. An exhibition in a box! The box was sent to us on the 24th. I mean — eight kilos of cat and dog photos on the first day of the full-scale invasion. Sometimes collecting turns into an anthropological study, and we see a lot of sensitivity and loneliness in the works. In times of war, catastrophic loss and destruction, collecting seems like an act of resistance. 

We have an 18th-century Iranian herbarium that traveled around the globe to end up in the collection. Regardless of long-haul flights and being kept in weird flats and storage, it arrived in excellent condition. It hasn’t fallen apart.

Text Daša Anosova
Images Бібліотека Наочних Явищ
Records of War