Civilisation – My Library Intervention at Leeds College of Art

On Monday 20 April I will be heading over to the Leeds College of Art library to begin a project called Library Interventions. LCA have been inviting artists to spend time in their libraries to research and make new work a bit like a residency only I won’t be there every day.

My starting point for this intervention is the television series Civilisation by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark who set out to show us what civilisation was supposed to be. Ours was the civilised world, he said, this European post dark-age world of art and learning and enlightenment. Below is a still image from the final scene of the series where he lovingly caresses a small Henry Moore sculpture that sits on the desk in his magnificent study – itself a great symbol of learning and privilege. The look on his face has always bothered me.

clark2 copy

The picture below it is my school portrait aged 12. The bookshelves aren’t real – it is just a backdrop put there to create an illusion.

School portrait

What is civilisation? How do we become civilised? Why is it seen as better than other forms of society or culture? Why does K. Clark bother me so much? Here’s what the sociologist Michel Leiris had to say.

‘Civilisation could be compared to the layer of green scum that settles on still waters. All our moral habits, polite customs, all that brightly coloured cloak that veils the crudity of our dangerous instincts, all those lovely forms of culture we are so proud of, for it is thanks to this that we call ourselves civilised, can vanish at the slightest turbulence, break up at the slightest shock revealing in the cracks terrifying savagery.’

I would like to use my intervention time exploring these cracks. By researching civilisation, enlightenment, dark age, ignorance and savagery I want to tread the fine lines between all of these ideas and find new ways to make work. 

Early definers of civilisation such as Petrarch and Vasari vilified the Dark Ages. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari says that the years between the sack of Rome and the Renaissance were a time of ignorance and barbarism and that all of the art made then was rubbish. We now know this to be untrue of course but I’m still fascinated with the idea of working within a dark age – a time and place with no expectation, no complexity or veneer of civilisation and therefore a space for creativity and potential. Where are the dark places of ignorance and freedom to be located within the library? How can I exploit them?

I will probably start out by using the library in a standard, traditional way: reading, looking, notetaking and collecting images – and documenting my findings and thoughts in this blog. I am also planning to create small drawings and paper mache objects in the form of amulets and votive bookmark offerings. I imagine myself depositing these around the place for library users to find and puzzle over.

Most importantly I’m going to experiment with being uncivilised in the library, whatever that means, with (or without) the permission of the librarian, out in the open and more enjoyably when no-one is looking, like when I was at school, secretly misbehaving.

Between now and 10 May I will document my interventions and the work that follows here in this blog. 

Find out more about Library Interventions here >


Reading Marx’s Capital

I’ve joined the reading group in Sheffield.

I confess I’m a bit nervous.

Look at the girth, the density of it!

I have to read it though, I need to understand what’s going on! The reading group is a support group.

If you are interested join the facebook group or  check out


When a new life form is discovered it’s details are noted down in a small notebook, a sketch is made, a photograph taken. This information may be taken away and compared with previously collected data. A decision is soon made about what it is you’ve actually seen. You may look at it as if it were something else, you may see what no one else sees and read the thing as if it were a text full of hidden meaning.

These spillages are a part of the urban or suburban landscape, common-place pollution of the street. They are something that may catch your eye if you walk with your head down. Eventually I formed a picture of these forms scattered around the city. Each different, but similar, the form influenced by the environment, the slope of the hill it happened to be spilled on. I imagined Darwin moving around the Galapagos Islands, differentiating all of those different tortoises… I felt like Darwin in a new landscape finding these forms. I looked upon them as the monster in Frankenstein might have, when he starts to discover the world as a feral child. He might start to recognise himself in them.

Alfred Gell says a kind of enchantment is produced by our contact with technical skill, we are impressed by what appears to be difficult to do, or as Berger might put it, difficult to obtain. A patch of accidentally spilled paint is produced not by a skilled act of painting but by a clumsy, thoughtless mistake. It only remains because it is difficult to clean up. It is not impressive. It is beautiful, like a natural form, ugly because in some ways it is formless, unintentional, homeless and unwanted. It has become a Romantic object.

In my father’s house..

While browsing the library shelves I was distracted by a tiny volume squeezed in amongst the books on aesthetics. A chance movement, an act on impulse and there i find An agent of the Estate by my teacher SK. I take it back to my seat and start to read it despite my vow of discipline. I don’t allow myself to go too far in, Berger and Benjamin are calling me. I read enough to be drawn in though, down its tiny, maze-like corridors.

(In my father’s house there are many mansions)

Maybe S will sell me a copy…

Illuminations intro cont…

‘As a possibility and thus perhaps a necessary commitment’, Benjamin said this of Zionism in 1913- I might say it of him.

Estrangement from tradition.

(baroque? Look this up)

Truth concerned a secret and that the revelation of this secret had authority- Not an unveiling…a…

Alethia- visually perceptible to the eyes of the mind and comprehended to us as ‘un-concealment’. Alethea was my grandmother’s name.

Reading 1

On the 16th of November last year I sat in the Library with Illuminations, the collection of Walter Benjamin essays.

It took me almost two hours to get half way through Hannah Arandt’s introduction.

This first reading is initiatory. I read, I noticed, i made notes, copied out whole chunks,  but very little commentary or analysis followed. It is a dull, though I suppose, normal starting point. When you meet someone for the first time sometimes you notice without judging, so keen are you to find what you are looking for in them.

The most interesting thing that I wrote in my notebook was..

While in the library. In the cubicle to my left is a student. He is making notes-copying notes onto a small whiteboard using a green board pen. He writes, then reads, then wipes the writing off the board. the green ink is turned into tiny particles that cover the paper he wipes with and flake around the edges of the board. The ink into words into matter-and into memory.