Week 47: 5th – 11th August
Given my interest in all things museal at the moment, I decided to investigate the local museums and archives, to supplement my knowledge in the field. Unfortunately, despite my researcher status, it can still be fairly difficult to access these kinds of objects, and even more so to handle them. Thankfully, here in Leeds, we have an organisation called Artemis, formerly known as the Schools Museum and Art Loan service.

Artemis provides a wide range of artefacts and original art for classroom teaching, and their collections consist of around 10,000 objects from areas including natural history, ethnography, geology, sculpture and textiles. This kind of handling collection allows audiences and learners to experience the objects as they would have originally been used, rather than through purely visual means. Developing fully accessible and haptic museum collections allows audiences to engage more fully with historical objects and their narratives, and Artemis even provides a handbook for potential teaching plans and guides to working with the artefacts.

Obviously, my purposes were somewhat different to the designated use for these objects, so I arranged to visit the collections to see if there was anything of interest to my project. Actually, the first time I heard about Artemis was back in 2011, when a group of artists produced a group show for Project Space Leeds using the collections.

Hunter Gatherer
The resulting exhibition Hunter Gatherer was a good indication of the kind of work I wanted to make, and reflected my own previous gallery interpretation practice as part of Visual Dialogues. The collection of works as a gallery exhibition produced in response to artefactual objects also reflected archiving and organisational processes: ‘The title of the show ‘Hunter Gatherer’ refers to a term used by anthropologists to describe the way in which human beings collected food before the advent of agriculture. Here it references the artists and the processes they have employed to sift through the vast Artemis collection. The resulting works include sculpture, installation, film, prints and drawing which form part static exhibition and part on-going project within the space.’

My preference was for the works that functioned as both interpretation and artwork, as in they aimed to make connections between the objects and deduce meaning from them, whilst also producing installations of new work. In particular, Amelia Crouch’s ‘visual manifestation of her thought processes using drawings, diagrams, objects and photographs’ created in response to John Wesley’s 1780 edition of ‘Primitive Physic and Receipt’ used objects from the Artemis collection as visual representations of early medical treatments. This kind of intervention appealed to me both aesthetically and conceptually, as it reinforced the idea of a collection as a kind of knowledge and the ways in which that knowledge can be interpreted.

Visiting the collections
On entering the room I was faced with rows and rows of shelves, piled high with objects and artefacts dating from the 13th Century to the present day. I started to feel slightly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material but began methodically working from one side of the room to the other. I quickly decided to focus on my main areas of interest, concentrating my efforts on textual objects from the Medieval and Early Modern periods, which helped me to narrow my search. My first finds in this section were original and replica versions of the Book of Hours, a Christian devotional text popular in the 13th to the 16th centuries.

I’d recently seen an exhibition of Books of Hours at the Stanley Burton Gallery and was interested to find out more about them in future. However my most interesting find turned out to be a collection of horn books, a kind of instructional text from the 1400s. Often used by school children as a way of learning phonics and the alphabet, the page was usually pasted to a wooden paddle and covered with a softened horn in order to protect it and help it to last. With a strong link to the history of learning, knowledge and print, it seemed like the perfect object to work with, so I resolved to create an object in response to it.


I’m trying to focus on visiting exhibitions that are more relevant to my research interests at the moment, so the reference library-cum-conceptual art installation currently on show at &Model Gallery in Leeds seemed the perfect place to start.

&Model was developed by co-directors, Chris Bloor, James Chinneck and Derek Horton to create more opportunities for showing and selling contemporary visual art in the city by local and international talent. Speaking to Simon Zimmerman in The City Talking, they describe their links with RTTA (Regeneration Through The Arts) as a not-for-profit organisation, and how they are interested in developing a commercial art enterprise for Leeds, whilst still maintaining opportunities for artists to explore more conceptual lines of enquiry.

Pretty Brutal Library
The current exhibition definitely falls into the latter camp, as it focuses completely on words, with each interpretive text emblazoned across the wall in big letters above more discreet wall-mounted artist books. The 10 books included in the library are available for audiences to take and read in the gallery, and succeed in creating an immersive experience, both through their surroundings and in the process of reading the books.

The books, which explore the relationship between text and speech, range from phonetic re-presentations of art history classics, through to texts written to induce stuttering. As it explains in the gallery information: ‘Each book confronts the old and new forces that function under the surface of language to objectify speaking and the spoken, be it for better or for worse. Each book has been authored by someone who has taken the double risk of calling that exploration poetic and making it public in print.’

Of the Subcontract
The project, initiated by Nick Thurston, also features his book ‘Of the Subcontract or Principles of Poetic Right’, a collection of poems about computational capitalism, which incorporates two specially commissioned essays by Mackenzie Wark and Darren Wershler. On approaching this work. I purposefully decided to avoid reading any contextual information, which while confusing in parts, allowed me a sense of experiencing the work before intellectualising it.

The poems created a jarring sensation when reading, as each voice differed from the last one, and also from my expectations as a reader, creating a sensation of reflecting my own reading process back at me. Upon further reading, it was explained that the poems were generated through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a web service which “offers access to a virtual community of workers” where tasks can be distributed online to be completed by users for a predetermined fee. Nick writes: “Of the Subcontract reverses out of the database-driven digital world of new labour pools into poetry’s black box: the book. It reduces the poetic imagination to exploited labour and, equally, elevates artificial artificial intelligence to the status of the poetic.”

The politics of labour
Despite my interest in these types of work, it raises certain ethical questions about the use of these methods, akin to other works which deal with models of labour and capitalism. In particular, the works of Santiago Sierra, who often uses marginalised or itinerant labour to highlight capitalist constructs and power exchanges. For example, is the process of implicating workers in the production of artwork which highlights their exploitation any better than the systems themselves?

However, this question also presumes an intention on the part of the artist to rectify the situation, as opposed to reflecting our own complicities in these practices through the products and services that we buy. Nevertheless, as Rani Molla discusses in her article on the Gravity and Grace exhibition by El Anatsui, although these abstractions reflect wider societal concerns, it is important to remember that they are also representative of real individuals and their labour. In relation to my own work, these issues also serve as timely reminders to my questions around appropriation and attribution of cultural artefacts.

NB. Opening times of Pretty Brutal Library have been extended to 14th September

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