Photography: Felipe Dulzaides

The catalog is to the book world what cetaceans are to the sea world. A disproportionate beast that at certain moments, most mortals –and some immortals– are forced to accommodate or reject.

In the art world it is not uncommon to encounter critics affirming a twenty-year career without having published a single book. This peculiarity creates irritation amongst literary colleagues, whose astonishment is shared by those from music or film, not to speak of those from bullfighting, sports and even gourmet...

While a critic cannot always be considered a “writer” –there are those who persevere in the stubborn bludgeoning of language–, it turns out that he should not be treated as an “unpublished”. On the contrary, their writing can be even abundant: disseminated in a network of magazines, memories of events, websites and other publications, almost always subject to the work of artists or confined to their orbit.

If there is a star of these publications, it is undoubtedly the catalog. There is no more generous media, nor better host for such writing. The problem is that catalogs, except for some bizarre exception, are not read beyond the art lodge. And the few that are read have a very short life beyond the specific event of an exposition. (That’s why the editors insist, in desperation, in publishing the catalogs together with the show, trying to boost their poor sales during the period in which the exposition stays “active”).

The literary and editorial vicissitudes and aren’t the only things that catalogs are required to elude. Their dimension, usually XL size, is not a small problem; nor is its weight, or the discomfort to read them. Perhaps for these reasons, Peter G. Romero (no friend of offering us what in former times used to be called an “on time catalog”) understands this media directly, as a “sculpture”, an object that you take home, as he defined it in the F.X. File: the empty city, his exhibition at the Tapies Foundation (2006).

Disproportion, overweight, hard to handle... The catalog is to the book world what cetaceans are to the sea world. A disproportionate beast that at certain moments, most mortals –and some immortals– are forced to accommodate or reject.

Such a dilemma tortured critic Jeffrey Swartz during last Christmas. Consequently, he plotted a plan to solve this delicate issue that lies in regaining meters without losing knowledge. (Depending on which catalogs and which books, this is not always a paradox).

Leaving pity aside, any tearful contemplation, Swartz deployed his un-catagolizing strategy beginning with a cold classification of the volumes that he would throw overboard: “Gifts”, “Trash”, “Donate”, “Sell”...

In the massacre, friends and foes alike were called upon to drop, unknown and famous, editions of global intent and regional issues. In an epigraph, That no one be offended, he tried, to no avail I’m afraid, to be forgiven in advance. This critic went so far as to grant an award to the most generous person in the free distribution of these chrome paper whales.

The truth is that as long as we exclude Onetti, this dilemma has tormented almost everyone. Already a paradigmatic case is that of Gabriel Zaid, who realized this distress in Too many books. It is obvious, that I have appropriated myself with the title to head this text. Less obvious is too –too?– I thought of Too Many Girls, that musical for which Desi Arnaz got to be known back in 1939, before the rise of I Love Lucy, the famous series that starred with Lucille Ball for almost a decade.

I return now, without too many (or few) girls of my illustrious compatriot, Gabriel Zaid. And to that book of his that runs through Luther’s, Herodotus’ or Italo Calvino’s bookish agony, as well as the terrors of the publishing industry or the litany of friends who are not content with presenting us with their books, but also sometimes demand –sometimes face to face– our opinion of them.

Halfway between an archivist and a collector, the cataloger is largely a “un-cataloger”. And that function is not limited exclusively to judging the expiration of one or another edition, or of certifying the impossibility of conserving some odd copy. It involves positioning himself in front of that media in the present and the future –and saying this with the greatest discretion possible– as well as before the memory of art itself.

Like everything else, are catalogs in crisis? The protagonists of this media themselves seem to think so. To the extent that, in recent years, amongst curators and artists there is an evident fervor to make catalogs “that look like books”; both in their format, as well as a hidden desire for transcendence, going beyond the ephemeral life of the exhibitions.

To me, however, the catastrophe does not seem so obvious. Of course, the catalog that only works as a luxury item will be condemned to be the object that it is, that is, self-condemned. But it is also true –if we have learned anything from Aby Warburg, Jorge Blasco or Didi-Huberman– that catalogs have endless possibilities before them. Today, while we can enjoy virtual exhibitions and museums, it is easy to see what catalogs could give of themselves without having the need to reserve them a few meters. Under that expansion wave, detailed catalogs of artistic processes would be feasible, catalogs that would allow us to see projects in real-time, image interactive files, added as footnotes, whole chapters including exhibition reviews.

In this era of crowdfunding or other cool ways from the old, and very artistic, ancient custom of “passing the hat”, not even printing would be a problem. This could be a la carte, in different versions and different levels of pay per print. As for the old catalogs, in addition to “trash”, “donate”, “sell” or “burn” proposed by Swartz, there is a simple alternative, before passing them through arms, passing them to PDF.

Having reached this point, it may be the perfect time for semi-literate critics with which this text started. This is the opportunity to free themselves from their attached lives and show that a critic outside a catalog is not always the same as a child without a lifesaver. Now they would be able to hear the whistle of a Wilde, a Michaux, a Sontag, a Barthes, a Rancière, a Bourriaud, an Azua, inviting them to enlighten ourselves with their story. This, of course, is if they have one. Otherwise, or we give up, or we decide to wait another twenty years to be enlightened, at last!, by those speeches with life of their own. There is patience.

* This article was published on Ivan de la Nuez’ blog, February 2011