The caves are the first libraries of our species: Mika Johnson

Infinite Library, traveling installation produced by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, reimagines the future of libraries as interactive spaces that engage visitors through multisensory storytelling

The caves are the first libraries of our species: Mika Johnson

Murtaza Ali Khan

The Infinite Library, a traveling installation produced by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, reimagines the future of libraries as interactive spaces that engage visitors through multisensory forms of storytelling. It seeks to embed human stories within a much grander narrative, one which includes the birth of our planet and the evolution of all life forms. Mika Johnson is the creative director of The Infinite Library and a multimedia artist by profession, interested in dream-like narratives, mythos, rituals, and biodiversity.

Johnson draws inspiration from a short story by the legendary Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. “I was on tour with a project. It was an adaptation of Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’. And then I came here and while I was here I was speaking to some colleagues and that’s when the idea of a virtual library occurred to me. My first inspiration was coming from Borges, the Argentinean writer who wrote in 1941 a short story called ‘The Library of Babel’. And the way he describes it is infinite. While there are only 25 symbols but the library contains every possible book that could exist with those 25 symbols. So it exists forever,” explains Johnson.

The caves are the first libraries of our species: Mika Johnson
Joel Hypen

The Infinite Library is not brimming with books. Nor is it a building. Nor is it reminiscent of anything that reminds one of a traditional library. It is an experience that takes place inside a virtual cave, with access to small chambers that double as portals, or micro worlds, that allow you to travel in time. “Borges’ story really inspired me because it was like the first time I had read a story about a library with a mythic system. And there was no end for it and it went forever. I thought it would be great for VR because VR allows you to play with space and I could conceive an infinite library and there’s a way to design it with light and shadows that it would seem to go on for infinity. So that’s how the project came into being,” reveals Johnson who works in many mediums, including as a director for fiction and documentary projects.

Beneath the cave flows a subterranean river that connects all the chambers, like the nodes of rhizome roots that branch out horizontally, all deep within the womb of the Earth. Each node in turn has its own centre or seed, which is ready to grow to the surface via a sinkhole, should you activate the knowledge within. The unity of these systems of knowledge, along with culture and nature, is at the core of this project. It is the library’s guiding metaphor. “As far as the content of the Infinite Library is concerned that grew slowly from my interest in many different things but mainly ecology and symbiotic systems. Like, for example, every library when you go on the foyer has a mythic sort of presentation of what it’s storing. Now, I decided that if it’s VR why make a library like you would find in this world,” recollects Johnson.

Johnson decided that the Infinite Library should be in a cave because of his interest in the beginning of art. “The first object that was found it’s in Blombos Cave in South Africa. It’s 77,000 years old and has markings. It’s just a small piece of ochre that shows the first evidence of abstract thinking in our species. So it’s interesting to me that if you assume abstract thought and an artistic object you can assume that probably at that moment there was language to explain what this would be about. So this is 77,000 years ago. And I thought this would be cool then because caves could very well be our first libraries. And there is a whole history of things hidden in caves and the caves are everywhere and we have cave paintings 35,000 years ago beginning of Europe, Indonesia and elsewhere. So the caves are really the first libraries of our species,” explains Johnson.

The Infinite Library is an immersive storytelling experience that visualizes different cultural backgrounds across past, present, and future, expanding the concept of the library into a cross-cultural concept of knowledge transfer through VR rooms. Within this virtual space, The Infinite Library hosts smaller sub-libraries, all of which are connected by nature. Each VR room introduces one knowledge system dedicated to South Indian Puppetry, European Alchemy, and Polynesian Navigation from around the world.

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