Library of Unwritten Books

Notes on B+B discussion:
Why do artists hang around in parks bothering people?

Our curatorial practice is focused on artists who are labeled Socially engaged / participatory / community-based / collaborative / relational aesthetics / new genre public art. These terms are all useful and frustrating at the same time. In its nature, this practice is resistant to definition. Each project responds to a specific situation and set of circumstances. A project may take on similar characteristics to other projects elsewhere but meanings can be diluted when they are brought together to represent a movement or genre. We feel it is more useful to think of project in terms of characteristics and examine the specific responses to the context.

One connecting characteristic that can be drawn is that they create situations, moments, events, infrastructures for relationships and connections between people to occur. These are often incidental, poetic, messy and fraught with tensions. In our work, we're interested to investigate how they are translated, communicated and how connections can live on.

We're here to talk about the specifics of the Library of Unwritten Books project. We want to examine the process that's underway, considering how it is operating in the context of the gallery. We will also consider it in relation to other projects we've been involved in.

A key characteristic of this project and of 'socially engaged' processes more widely is the act of collecting and gathering. This leads to human contact through conversation. Why is this a motivation of projects? Why do artists want to go and bother people in the parks? The recording device, the trolley, offers a performative tool as do the headphones - to demonstrate the process and are visual signals that offer a level of seriousness in order to engage strangers. Through personal contact and engagement they are sourcing, investigating and setting up encounters for imagination and hidden ideas to find a platform.

This platform is hosting a very personal encounter. Everyone has a story knocking around their heads but actually having to tell your story to a stranger is like handing on an idea or secret. Telling is very different to writing. Caroline and Sam then transcribe each recording, converting the tale into a book displayed and archived in the library. This process of transferal into the gallery for sorting, collating, documenting and display is often the quieter, more private stage. In this case, collecting has continued throughout the process so that gallery visitors can also enter into the direct engagement process.

Documentation is often all that remains of collaborative projects when they are presented in a gallery context. This is often a frustrating experience for the viewer as it offers a perspective of the encounter created and documented by the artists alone. In this case, the archive continues to grow and adapt to new input and responses from visitors as Caroline and Sam have continued to record stories in the gallery.

Forming a library is a process of archiving. The library is the result of that archiving process but that unlike an archive the word library implies a more active usage and life. Many artists use and have used archiving as a process in their work. An archive implies a certain seriousness / completeness giving the collecting process a level of validity often collecting very incidental or personal material. The Library of Unwritten Books could be seen as a democratic archiving process, gathering personal histories and stories. The archive has a level of authority but is also entirely arbitrary as encounters are unplanned and stories unknown. It's also a completely unknown quantity.

Another key characteristic of 'socially engaged' practices are the circles and networks of participants who become connected to a specific project. In this case: Sam and Caroline and the gallery and partnering organisation form a core circle and collaborate to enable the process through funding etc. Sam and Caroline then connect with people in the park through one-to-one conversation leading to wider network of collaborators. This network is then connected to a further network of participants from partner organisations. This third network is then gathered and presented to a wider public through the period of the exhibition at the Pump House, during which a fourth level circle is introduced in the form of visitors who engage with the books presented and added to the archive. The afterlife of the books and archive creates a further ring of those who experience the books elsewhere.

Suzanne Lacy, an American artist and writer who has written widely on new genre public art as its called in the US, describes this process of concentric circles of audience as non-hierarchical 'audience-centred' model of experiencing art. I think it is almost worth abandoning the term audience altogether because people coming into contact with the project are contributing on some level and therefore are informing and forming the project as a whole.

In addition to the levels of collaborators there are those who are involved perhaps at a greater distance through commissioning and funding. This level can complicate meaning as projects can be framed through policy and guidelines that may not in the end accurately reflect the process. For instance, this project is funded under the banner of assisting in the process of social inclusion and therefore has found support from the local council. As is evident in comments from visitors to the pump-house, people have found this a very positive and inclusive process to engage with. However, when collaboration takes on the responsibility of promoting change or social good, artists can end up working in situations or contexts in which they may not have the skills to negotiate.

Library of Unwritten Books initiates a period of instigation and investigation. The project also sets up a gift exchange between the artists and their collaborators. Participants give over their stories in the knowledge that in return they will receive a copy of their idea in the form of a book. This process sets up an exchange and extends the life of the books back to the collaborators. However, the artists ultimately make the final edit and define what is gathered and recorded.

Through our work, B+B work to investigate and map the afterlives of projects such as Library of Unwritten Books. How can projects that are so connected to the specific context in which they've taken place be translated or shown in a different place and time? In Unwritten Books, the books themselves are an object that can become emblematic of the experience and can go on to have a life both in the hands of the owner and in the unwritten books archive


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