"The trials and tribulations of working with museums in Leicester". Or perhaps "the exhibition that never was, changed three times and then was again in a lasting but intangible sort of way"…read it, you'll understand…
To round up this rather rambling blog I will summarise, and thereby explain the title.
To begin with the project was rejected by the institutions that I had wanted to work with through a twist of fate, this was the project that never was.
It 'was again' when I realised that I had become set in my ways. I realised that I could produce everything that I wanted to do simply by talking to people and remaining independent.
It changed three times from palimpsests to audio guides in museums to a virtual gallery experience, and even then this doesn't cover the range of writings and other connections that the project created.
And this way of working, which I keep referring to as fluid, is the way that I intend to carry out future projects. Where the outcomes are not set and the work comes about from the way in which people chose to interact with you. Of course it is up to me to position my self in a way that people would want to interact with me, but I mean that unexpected things can come out of the tiniest slant on ideas that we all have in common.
This was not the first 'spin-off' from the project.
Through interviewing lecturers at each of the main Universities I had also secured a seminar/lecture for mixed subject PhD students at De Montfort University, as well as a 5,000 word chapter about the project and its themes for a published textbook on Materiality, and one of the palimpsests was to take part in complexity theory research at Nottingham Trent. The seminar at De Montfort had further ramifications when one of the PhD design students explained that he wanted to create a virtual exhibition, and I will explain more about this later.
Time passed, and it had been almost a year since I started the project, that the New Walk museum got back in touch.
“I have just been finalizing our Business Plan for 08-09 and we have had to make a lot of cuts to our proposed work schedules.”
A little less surprised this time around, the exhibition was not on, again. But I was not particularly bothered by the news. This way of working felt quite liberating. Sure there wasn't going to be any big macho exhibition for people to come gawp at, but so what? It was creating interesting relationships between otherwise unrelated academics and the religious representatives. It was creating debate and stimulating the creation of new research areas. I felt all warm and fuzzy about it.
I still had the problem of audience figures. Despite no exhibition, there were figures of people I had spoken to, presented to, had taken part, would read the chapter, had visited the museumcabinet.com website, and then experience other aspects of the project. The audience was monting up almost virally!
About this time the PhD design student also got back to me explaining that he had formed a group of experienced design students that would like to produce the virtual gallery. It would involve cutting edge 3D virtual modelled versions of each of the palimpsests existing in a purpose built virtual space, and existing as a permanent online feature. Online visitors would be able to manipulate the object and even experience the affects of light across it's surface as they moved it. It would even be possible to have the audio guides for each artefact set to play as you experienced them.
I began thinking about two things: the virtual exhibition (especially the virtual artefact) would be the natural successor to the re-made artefacts (the palimpsests); and also that I wondered if the New Walk might want to have these virtual versions of their archaeology displayed in their museum somehow… but I felt I had already had enough of them, and probably them of me.
The palimpsests were interesting enough in their own right, but after the success of the focus group I felt that it was their interrelation with the recordings that created the most interesting body of work.
I even imagined that instead of objects forming a final exhibition, it might simply be audio. It would probably be in the form of an audio guide, like you would find in a museum which would affect the way you would experience the museum artefacts you saw. It seemed reasonable that the diversity of experts I had already recorded would form a striking collection of voices making their comments.
With this new idea in mind I met with Chris Slowe, a representative for Secularism and repeated the interview process, tweaking it from what I had noticed from the LCoF. I went on to interview representatives from Visual and Material culture studies, Interpretive studies, Ecology, Folklore, an artist working with Complexity theory, and even a representative for transport. In total I created more than eight hours of audio material, which was to cause many a throbbing headache during editing!
Another headache was that the quality of the recordings was poor. It is the bane of most artists that we are jack-of-all-trades, and in my case I had little experience in audio recording before I set out. I had bought a decent studio condenser mic, but the ambient noise in the LCoF recordings, and the microphones inability to hear distinct voices if someone is speaking in the background made it all but a write-off. I had been aware of this after the first experience and had first gone to quieter and more 'sound proof' spaces with lots of soft furnishings. But the recordings were already inconsistent, so I went ahead and recorded the later interviews in public places like in parks or again in the New Walk Museum. After much thought on the subject and though seeking advice from several colleagues (including Jennie Syson who was most helpful). I decided to create a museum audio guide of either my own voice or that of an actor. It would probably have a certain dead-pan quality, but would involve 're-expressing' the comments made by the recorded experts, but where the personal and cultural identity and the emotions of the original commentators are anonymous.
Another stroke of luck was that the head of the New Walk Museum (and in fact responsible for all of the museums) was an ecologist, and he had agreed to be interviewed for the project. This was an uncomfortable process for me, and he was the man who had said 'no'. Despite this he helped to produce a really interesting set of recordings, and showed great interest in the issues the project raised, especially concerning the LCoF input and the way the general public can relate to their own archaeology. To my bemusement it was also agreed that I would submit an exhibition application form as it fitted well with the museums future plans.
Through an uncomfortable series of emails with the same institutions that I had earlier had difficulties with, I ended up interviewing the Leicester Council of Faiths in a meeting room in the New Walk Museum.
My reasoning for this was two-fold: I wanted to show the LCoF that I was serious enough about the project to rent out an important space within the city, and one that was relevant to the project; and I hoped to have positive dealings with the New Walk, so I wouldn't continue feel like a leper when I came to visit in the future.
To my relieved the focus group went very well indeed. There was a great range of comments and observations that came from individuals and in group discussion. Each representative expressed comments that they thought I would want from them, and I appreciated their desire to be helpful. I didn't want to lead the responses, but I was always going to be present during the process, so the question "what would you like me to say?" came up quite frequently. But it was after the formal responses had finished that interesting things started to appear. Individuals would be excited by some aspect of the imagery or of the their own frame of reference.
(Sikh representative) …(Palimpsest 1) a seahorse, isn’t it? and here is a…(Palimpsest 2) deer.
(Christian representative) …I don’t know what that one is at all (Palimpsest 11) I mean it looks like it should be a face or something, but maybe its not.
(Sikh representative) …no it is something you know with the seas. You can see some sort of insect which is floating on the water.
(Christian representative)…What about the rabbit here, or hare, is it a hare or a rabbit?
(Hindu representative)… (Palimpsest 2) Oh and it looks like a camel’s face as well.
(Christian representative) …(Palimpsest 1) It’s gotta be a fish hasn’t it? It’s an underwater deep fish thing, because these are the scales, and this is, this a funny head that it’s got. A mythological fish out of the deep, so it’s a lot to do with time, apparently not a lot of these things are representational. It’ll stand for some deep see creature that’s…part of the underworld. Could be threatening looks like it could be missing a bit.
(Muslim representative) …No matter what we say, this is an impression of our own upbringing within our own culture. So we are bringing it from that point of view and not certainly from the civilisation that came with this idea.
(Christian representative)Yes fairly indistinct isn’t it…
It was also the first time I had interviewed a group before. I was nervous and I had wanted to give them all of my attention during the recording, expecting that the desire would be for everyone to talk at once. To help this I hired a photographer for the morning, and this took a lot of pressure off of my documenting the event and hosting it simultaneously.
I spent a joyful part of early July drawing in the Jewry Wall Museum. The staff were marvellous, and brought out boxes of ambiguous artefacts as well as 'themed' boxes of animal patterns and human/god forms. I was even given a desk to work at for the duration.
There was a fair blend of artefacts with and without known provenance, and when later that month I started to consider what I might do with these observations it became clear that there was an impossible amount to choose from.
I'm not sure that I could explain my initial selection process, but it involved picking one or two items from distinct historical periods in Leicester, and every artefact had to come from within the city. I choose some items that were easily recognisable but also other images that would be unintelligible. I settled on thirteen, but later dropped it to twelve, which was also the number of experts I intended to interview (six cultural and six academic representatives).
I had a dilemma still to solve. In the original project I had intended to create objects, and eventually display them amongst actual artefacts when they were being examined. I no longer had this freedom, nor did the object idea appeal. In previous studio work I had being playing around with palimpsests, and I had already created a set of written on, scraped away and written on again pieces. The idea came to me to create 'icons' on parchment of this set of twelve artefacts to suggest their 'original splendour'. But then to create palimpsests by scraping away at the images to represent the wear and tear on the artefacts as they are today. This process felt like a suitable metaphor for many of the ideas behind the project, and also created bizarre collection of irregular-shape animal hide pieces to show to interviewees.