On an information board in the entrance to the room, we read that Random Archive ‘questions how an archive can be viewed by testing the boundaries usually placed on access and exploration by the public’. In the case of Bury Art Museum’s Text Art Archive (founded in 2013), from which the work in the exhibition is drawn, the greatest barrier on public access and exploration is probably understanding what is meant by ‘text art’ in the first place and what an ‘archive’ of it might constitute.
It is not a barrier that is overcome by a quick glance at the work on display. In Random Archive you are just as likely to find soundworks and installations as you are works of poetry and typography. ‘Text art’ is misleading. ‘Language art’ is probably an easier way to understanding the material that makes up the archive, although it is a term broad enough to encompass the entirety of artistic output. Though we do get the obligatory reading room (where bemused audience members can catch up on the institutional critiques of Marcel Broodthaers and the Art & Language group in the comfort of an art gallery corner and approach the work afresh), examining the history or definition of ‘text art’ does not seem to be the focus of the exhibition.
Susan Lord and Hannah Allan, curators of Random Archive, have not approached Bury’s Text Art Archive as though it were a coherent entity with concrete meaning but as something messy and in flux – a collection of material to be continually rethought.
Along the walls of the gallery, works are grouped under four headings: sex, gun, motor, shadow. The words were arrived at by co-curator Susan Lord who used a ‘random word technique’ devised by leading Creativity Expert Michael Michalko (the author’s Amazon-best-seller Thinkertoys boasts an arsenal of ‘life-changing tools that will help you think like a genius’). In a laminated A4 handout, the co-curator details characteristics associated with each of the four words. These characteristics were used as a way of selecting and grouping works from the archive or, as stated in the handout, ‘forcing connections’ between them.
I felt the characteristics of the word were:
A motor powers things, makes them run – move
A motor is mechanical
A motor generates movement
A motor is a tool that helps speed things up
A motor is progress
In the ‘motor’ sub-archive we find Revolution of the Nineteenth Century by Pavel Büchler – a print over two pages created using a set of 19th century letterpress blocks.
‘HERE THE CONTENT EXCEEDS THE PHRAS’ reads one print.
‘THERE, THE PHRASE EXCEEDED TH CONTNT’ the other.
The quote is from Karl Marx on the failings of the 1848 revolutions, the missing letters from the failings of the obsolete letterpress set which had insufficient letters to print the quote in its entirety. The work is about failure and progress, gaps in time and gaps in communication. Audience members not already familiar with this specific work of Büchler’s however, or without a copy of Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte handy, may arrive at a different meaning. Without knowing the context or medium, outlined neither in laminated A4 handout nor on information board in the entrance to the room, we are simply presented with two misspelt sentences amongst four walls of unrelated text.
Traditionally, a curator’s role was to care for the collections of museums and galleries; later, to edit and select from them in order to make the collection, or an aspect of it, accessible to the public. In Random Archive, editing and selecting is carried out as a creative activity in itself. The curator becomes the idea former, creating a system of tenuous connections between works from the archive. We might say this system of connections raises questions on the categorisation of art and an object’s precarious relationship with meaning, but in making a series of conceptually intricate artworks more difficult to read, it also raises a more important one.
When curating an exhibition from an existing archive of work, what are the responsibilities of the curator? To interpret, or to bring order to what is already there?
Random Archive, Bury Art Museum, Bury.
20 May – 12 August 2017.
A closing symposium for the project will be held 12 August 11am – 3pm at Bury Art Museum. More information can be found here.
Daniel McMillan is an artist and writer based in Manchester.