I was sixteen when I first went to the Mercantile Library. My uncle brought me as he was teaching me how to drive and used our lessons as an excuse to explore the city. I specifically still remember walking through the wooden doors and the wonderment I found inside.
I had an odd fascination with historical spaces as a teenager. So, I was captivated by the Library’s interior of aged book stands, iron shelves, arched windows, oil paintings, and marble busts, which all embodied a century that was long gone. In that moment, I had the satisfaction of discovering something that had survived the fate of modern remodel, a rarity tucked away in a ubiquitous downtown building. I loved finding the historically hidden, becoming aware of the stories attached to these spaces, concealed simply because of the passing of time. I scored big that day, stumbling upon the Mercantile.
I also was sixteen when I decided to become an artist. And now, a little over twenty years later, my practice as a sound artist is fueled by the same delight I had in adolescence: discovering what historically was — architecture, artifacts, people — and uncovering the synchronous relationship they have to our present.
In the summer of 2019, the Contemporary Arts Center commissioned me to create a new sound-based work for the April 2020 edition of their performance festival, This Time Tomorrow. I had made an unorthodox audio tour for the arts center a few years back, and I was inspired to explore the Mercantile in the same way. I wanted to excavate the wonder I experienced at the Library 20 years before.
As the festival was fast approaching, my attempt to create an audio tour for the Library was halted by indecision and lack of direction. I couldn’t find a conceptual anchor to root my research and was tying together weak connections with random odds and ends of information that were more amusing than insightful. In short, I was screwed.
During this period of wrestling with the tour, I became curiously fixated with a book on display in the library — an illustrated edition from the early 1900s of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic 17th-century poem that recounts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the paradise of Eden. Because my thesis lacked order, I had no idea how, or even why, to integrate it into my haphazard patchwork of an artwork. But I kept thinking about it.
I don’t need to explain why the performance festival never happened that year, we all know too well the reason. As the world was rapidly closing in on us and forcing us to retreat away from society, I selfishly realized an act of God had saved me from debuting an artistic failure. I got the extension every tired and panicked person fantasizes about, and I caught up on missed sleep in the comfort of relief.
As I re-approached my work, Milton’s Paradise Lost crept back into my thoughts. Except this time, in the new context of a global pandemic, my fascination with the text felt more like an uncanny premonition. At the height of the pandemic, I think that we all could relate to what it felt like to be banished from the gates of our known community and away from the paradises of family, friends, and shared comforts.
I now had my anchor to tell the story of the Mercantile I had been desperately searching for months before. Reflecting on the creation story in Paradise Lost and subsequently our origin as a species, I viewed the concept of a library as a collection of our shared knowledge and the realization that this will most likely be the most significant mark that humanity will leave behind. I positioned the Mercantile Library and its story of 200 years of survival through phases and incidents through an anthropological lens to survey the human epoch.
Presented in the form of an audiobook, the tour takes its listeners on a journey through the objects of the Library: a classical marble statue, a painting from 1879 of a 9-year-old aristocrat, visitor logs from the 19th century, a magnificent grandfather clock that no longer works, a bell from a submarine used in the latter years of the Cold War. All become gateways to tell our collective story, from the myths of our creation to the realities of our impending demise.
Of course, the last object of the tour is John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The object that called to me like a lighthouse in the fog of artistic block, leading me to the definition of the shore. Fittingly, I came to find out that Milton wrote Paradise Lost through his own experience of a devastating pandemic, the 1664 outbreak of Bubonic plague in London, which forced him and his family to retreat into isolation in the English countryside. He was himself unwell, completely blind in fact, when he wrote Paradise Lost. He claimed he was visited nightly by a muse allowing him to awaken reciting perfect stanzas that his daughter frantically scribed. I like to think that the same muse, by proxy through Milton, also visited me in those pandemic days of sleep as I realized why the text was calling me.
The tour starts with how I began my relationship with the Mercantile — walking through the large wooden doors. The action performed by each listener becomes a homage to a lasting memory born out of a routine driving lesson. I hope that each person that experiences the Mercantile Library through this work finds that same lasting wonderment I experienced all those years ago.
Britni Bicknaver is an artist, amateur vocalist, history buff, and a seventh-generation Cincinnatian.
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