Babel by Simon Biggs
Multi-user interactive web navigation interface based on the Dewey Decimal Cataloguing system. Programmed in Lingo and server side code, requires online connection for login to server to function, facilitating multi-user data exchange. Commissioned by Essex Libraries, UK, 2001.
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babel

I've been slightly wary of Simon Bigg's work. The claims the work makes for itself are sometimes just slightly beyond the reach of the means which it deploys to grasp and shape them. Sometimes it's the technology, at others, the concept. There's a bit of pomposity too, the aroma of a grand summation. In Babel however this is precisely what makes the work sing.

Melvil Dewey set up his Decimal Classsification system in the 1870s as a way of classifying all forms of written text by discipline. (A good general description of the system can be found at http://www.oclc.org/dewey/about/about_the_ddc.htm/ ) Ten main classes 'organise the entire world of knowledge'. As we know it today, it is the most commonly used way of ordering physical storage in libraries. As the areas of activity producing books change, as new disciplines emerge or become visible - since Dewey, genetics or computers for instance - and start filling shelves, the categorical numberising bulges and splits like an amoebal baby-boom.

In his CDROM 'The Great Wall of China' based on the Kafka story of failed, unreadable, untimely messages passing from one group of constructors to another Biggs sets up another schema of incommunication. 'Clever' fiction, often that of Kafka, Calvino, Borges or others has often provided the grounds for lame multimedia work. Mind -bludgeoning literalism and function-creep make these files only fit for the delete. Thankfully though, both of these works reward a bit of time on them. It is the collapse of the big concept, the wall or the hierarchy, into its fractious detail that they both work with and reveal.
The hierarchy of the Dewey system has been maintained as a way to put books on shelves, but it has also been supplemented, networked across, by the tabular and database storage of other kinds of information, keywords, author-info and so on. It remains useful in libraries, but it also needs to be read against the grain. It is this contrast between a hierarchical tree and a network that Babel makes visible, and manipulable.

by Matthew Fuller, posted 08 May 2003


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