All posts by Annie

Revolution I: Industrialisation

Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Artist as Archeologist

Industrialisation has become an abstract entity rooted in history. You can go to a museum and see machines as artifacts, and hear the stories of the hardships of workers, with the same distancing from reality as a child reading a ‘Horrible Histories’ book. Perhaps the current need of artists to revisit our industrial past stems from their desire to keep it current. After all, industrialisation is only a matter of history for the western world, but in other places industrialisation is happening right now. Even here in Manchester, industry didn’t start properly declining until the 1960s, so it’s solidly fixed in living memory. And of course the effects of industry will continue long after operation ceases through climate change.

Hannah Leighton-Boyce explores history and memory, leading to an inquiry into the legacy of industry in much of her work. She often works with found objects or past occurrences, unearthing things that have been lost to history. The now defunct textile manufacturing of Northern England is a recurrent theme within her most recent works. For this reason she naturally finds herself working with industrial heritage sites. These mill museums represent the antithesis to Leighton-Boyce’s work in a way – they are the very institutions responsible for burying certain memories, whilst turning others into artefacts. Her work deals with these issues in a subtle, non-confrontational way, thereby working within the constraints of these institutions while still preserving the integrity of the ideas.

The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura ©Hannah Leighton-Boyce

Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s piece The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was part of the exhibition Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in 2013. The site-specific work was housed within the walls of the Salts Mill spinning room (formerly the largest industrial room in the World). The piece consisted of 7 camera obscuras installed into the ventilation alcoves of the previously windowless room. By revealing these never-before-seen views, the piece reactivates the Victorian sense of wonder. A contemporary art audience could easily mistake the work for light boxes. However the longer contemplation time the viewer is encouraged to take by kneeling on a cushion to view the scenes, means the mechanical simplicity of the camera obscura is revealed (through a slowly moving cloud or a flying bird).

If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn

The World Said, And The Consequence Was ©Hannah Leighton Boyce

The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was the catalyst for two new works by Leighton-Boyce. One was If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn. This piece consists of a film by Mary Stark, and balls of wool. The film documents Leighton-Boyce hand spinning wool found within the walls of the room. Wool wasn’t the only thing she found in the walls though. The piece The World Said, And The Consequence Was is an archive of over 100 objects all also found in the walls. The collection contains various victorian industrial and non-industrial paraphernalia – a sewing needle, bobbins, broken machinery, cogs, brushes, trade meeting tickets, a boot, a wrist protector, cigarette packets and much much more. The sense of wonder prevails. For what reason are the walls filled with all this stuff?

Leighton-Boyce describes the piece as a “memorial to the act of finding”. Finding can be a very emotional thing. in this case it was never on the cards – she was faced with a large, clean, bare space. She says:

Within the now vast and empty space of the spinning room, these small dark rooms recessed along the outer walls were, it seems, the perfect space for discarding, hiding, loosing, and preserving not only fragments of wool but also a wide range of objects. Once I began, the event continued to unfold, object after object entangled with wool, rust, oil and dirt raging from centuries old to more recent and familiar lifetimes. It was an incredibly moving experience. Each small room contained an archive, which unlike a typical museum collection, crossed time and hierarchy; from the everyday and personal items to industrial remains, creating a unique portrait of the people who worked there and a narrative of the events around the space.

I remember thinking when seeing her piece East Wing 1939 – 2011 that there is an unnerving sense of precariousness to a practice reliant on ‘finding’, but somehow the finds keep coming. Another interesting thing about this piece is the fact that in a way, it never existed. It was documented but never viewed directly. This is due to the fact that despite found by Leighton-Boyce, the objects of course belong to Salts Mill. The collection has been re-archived. No doubt some items have been discarded as insignificant (given the limited space of a gallery archive, they wouldn’t bother storing hundreds of cigarette packets and sweet wrappers). If any of the items are ever shown again it will be in a new context – one as an object in a museum. So the term ‘memorial’ does seem appropriate. The objects, and the piece with them, have been re-buried within the walls of an institution.

The proposed work Tenter Lines [working title] also deals directly with the historicising of industrialisation. The work will respond to the site of the tenter fields above Helmshore Mill and will explore the shifting relationships between people and place, culminating in a ‘happening’ this summer marking the sites of where the tenter frames once stood. Tenter frames were used in wool production to keep cloth under tension whilst drying so it wouldn’t shrink. These large frames and expanses of fabric would once have been a dominant feature above Helmshore Mill, as well as the constant flow of workers carrying cloth up and down the hill. But where the frames once stood is now a housing estate; built in the 1970s, the estate coincides with the decline of industry and birth of the digital revolution. Like many Mill towns, Helmshore, which once had a strong local economy, is now primarily a commuter village, and the estate shows no indication of its industrial past – not even a street name. So Leighton-Boyce is unearthing a hidden history and again creating a kind of memorial. By mapping the site with an action, the work will mimick the the fact that it was the action that marked the place previously, not any permanent structure.

Production Lines

There are many examples of artists referencing the aesthetics, repetition and persistence of production lines. But when discussing artwork in relation to production lines, it’s hard not to also think about the working methods of artists and their manufacturing practices. in this blog I have highlighted projects that reference the factory production line directly in content and also more indirectly in process – the projects chosen all rely on the work of others in some way. Cohen Van Balen employ actual factory workers to perform their piece, Paul Granjon enlists volunteers from the local community, Carlos Amorales wants the gallery visitor to manufacture the art, and István Csákány makes his artwork so delicate that it relies on constant maintenance from gallery technicians.

Many artists employ the skills of others to manufacture their art, acting as overlookers; they reside over a project, taking full intellectual authorship over it, but enlisting workers to do much of the making. With a clear distinction between physical work and intellectual work, labour can be divided into separate skill stations in order to increase production speed and quality.

But what about when artists use unskilled labour, as is usually the case when enlisting volunteers, or gallery goers? There is clearly more going on than just exploitation. Relying on others is problematic, especially when the successful completion of a project relies on the work of unskilled, unpaid workers.

The term ‘carry the can’ is thought to derive from cotton mills, as it was someone’s responsibility to physically move the partly processed cotton from one part of the mill to the next. Although basic unskilled labour, it carried a great deal of responsibility as workers relied on being supplied with product in order to do their work; if a link in the chain was broken it effected everything in front of it.

In Oriel Factory, Paul Granjon is the classic socially engaged artist, trying to give something back to the local community. He has relinquished control over the project in order to maximise the experience of others. The workers are taught skills and are free to define their own tasks and product. The artist’s responsibility has shifted from a pure making role to a managing one; he takes responsibility not only for the creation of a successful exhibition but also for providing a beneficial experience to others. If the unskilled, unpaid workers neither perform nor benefit, the project surely fails. Although, the intellectual labour is still clearly defined (the participants take authorship over their own pieces and these are displayed in a separate part of the gallery), the physical content of the final exhibition is left unknown until the worker’s labour is realised.

In the case of Flames Maquidadora by Carlos Amorales, the unskilled labourer is not an enlisted participant but the gallery goer. The artwork is the process of making in the gallery context and the gallery goer experiences the art through making it. By purposefully hinging an artwork on a potentially unwilling participant, Amorales seems to be highlighting the problems with relinquishing control to an unskilled workforce. This is played out by the fact that the visitors didn’t manage, even collectively, to produce one finished product.

In the spinning rooms of cotton mills, the person in charge was the spinner. He was the only person actually paid by the mill owner and would then enlist workers to help him, paying them out of his salary. 

István Csákány is also handing over responsibility in Ghost Keeping, but this time to his advantage. The art world, like a factory, involves different people taking responsibility for different aspects of a project, and the different parts having different pockets of money. Artists often get commissioning fees which cover both payment for time and manufacturing cost. What so often happens is that artists have to sacrifice part of their payment in order to put more money into the manufacturing costs, therefore essentially working for a minimal wage. In Ghost Keeping, Csákány is capitalising from this system by manufacturing the work using very cheap materials that are easy to shape quickly. This then transfers the major cost of the project onto the artwork’s upkeep. This maintenance cost would come from an entirely different budget, and would be the responsibility of the gallery, not the artist.

The Owl Project do a similar thing with their iLog Workshops, by taking the responsibility of making from themselves and giving it to the collector. Instead of just paying for a piece of artwork, the collectors have to come to the artists’ studio and make it for themselves. They go away with an Owl Project artwork, but the Owl Project haven’t made it, they have. This model bypasses the problems with enlisting unskilled labour faced by artists such as Granjon. If the artwork doesn’t get made properly, or even completed, the consequences lie on the maker/collector, not the artists.

In 75 Watt by Cohen Van Balen it is not the artist’s but the labourer’s responsibility that has completely shifted. Instead of acting as ‘man-machines’, they are now performers. Just like the actual machines discussed in my last blog, by not accomplishing anything, the act of working becomes exposed. Although any artwork referencing production lines is clearly commenting on issues surrounding capitalism, workers rights, distribution of wealth and the general socioeconomic situation, it seems questions around the labour of artists also emerge. The factory worker and the artist seem immediately completely at odds, with artists generally being from more educated, affluent backgrounds, and not having to work to a strict pattern or production speed. But unlike an office worker, or indeed most other jobs outside the manufacturing sector, artists are actually involved in the production of a finished object (in the loosest sense of the word). In 75 Watt similarities to the work of artists are clear; the worker/performer carries out the action of making, produces a useless item, only to begin the unavailing activity again.

Production Rings

A series of four videos, all depicting a different scene – a clearing, a pine forest, a pond and a meadow. Shot with a DSLR on a tripod, they resemble photographs, as the only action occurring is the occasional, but regular, entrance of a smoke ring, released from behind the video camera, appearing as a rhythmical timecode. The regularity of the release of smoke is suggestive of industry, as the steam from an engine or the fumes from a power plant. The release of steam from engines is in a sense their product, it is the result of their work. The rings, which may at first appear as perfect circles, soon degrade when they are hit by the elements. The artist’s work is done off camera and like the work of a scientist, the same task is carried out again and again. But like so many failed experiments, no apparent result is achieved.


Navigating the Pond

The artist went to the physical effort of transporting a two-metre diameter hoop down into a pond, where it made a very subtle intervention, blending in with the surroundings. She then rowed the video camera from one end of the pond towards the hoop, trying to keep the center of the hoop in the center of the frame. As the video unfolds, the hoop gradually emerges from its surroundings, as the video camera gets closer and eventually glides into the hoop. The task is successful but this success serves no purpose.