Several hundred people trooped into a forest near the Norwegian capital, Oslo, earlier this month to toast the eighth year of a century-long investment in the future. Each year since 2014, when the Future Library project was initiated by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson, a high-profile international author has written a story that will be hidden away for 100 years. Contributors include Canada’s Margaret Atwood, the UK’s David Mitchell, South Korea’s Han Kang and Norway’s own Karl Ove Knausgård.
This year’s innovation was the opening of a “silent” room at the top of Oslo’s new Deichman library, where the accumulating stories will lie unread in glass drawers until 2114. The drawers are set into panelling made from mature trees that were felled at the start of the project to allow for a new plantation of spruce saplings. In time, those saplings will provide bindings for the anthologised stories.
There are many ways in which the Future Library is a visionary project: it is outward looking and diverse at a time of narrowing perspectives and closing borders. It plants a flag for delayed gratification in the quicksands of the social media age. It is interdisciplinary not only in its embrace of literature and art, but also in its symbolic commitment to sustainable forestry, to public architecture and, not least, to the importance of civic stewardship.
A 100-year deal signed with the city of Oslo last week guarantees protection of both the plantation and the books. The contract is no mere bureaucratic aside, but an essential part of a project that is not yet a tenth of its way to completion, and will rely for much of its life on custodians who are yet to be born.
This is the practical and philosophical challenge confronting any long-haul project. Artangel’s Longplayer is another standout example – a 1,000-year piece of music that has been playing out across the world from an old lighthouse in the River Thames since the turn of millennium. As its composer, the Pogues veteran Jem Finer, pointed out, Longplayer is only as good as the structures devised to look after it. “If nobody is interested, or there is no way of playing it, it will no longer exist.”
The importance of upkeep has been learned the hard way over the years by many artists: the sculptor Antony Gormley recently had to rescue his Crosby beach figures, 100 cast-iron statues that he has dubbed “industrial fossils”, after several of them toppled over and were in danger of being swept out to sea. In this case, the projected lifespan of the installation was an accident of popular success, which extended its ambition from just 16 years to 1,000.
The Merseyside authorities responsible for ensuring Gormley’s figures remain safe and sound could learn from the joined-up thinking in Oslo. While the writers exchanged notions of time, a forester raised the practical question of whether to allow rogue broadleaf trees to infiltrate the spruce plantation, and a politician spoke of the duty of care towards nature, books and hope. Such mighty alliances of pragmatism, imagination and custodianship are vital as the world wobbles towards an uncertain future.