The Archivist

The Archivist, Performer David Giblin, Photo Kim Ayres
The Archivist with George Wyllie’s Spire, Performer David Giblin, Photo Kim Ayres

How do you represent ideas that are far away, remote or don’t exist yet? The Environmental Art Festival Scotland (EAFS) was spread across rural Dumfries and Galloway, but its ambition was to represent environmental art ideas from much further afield.

Exhibitions of ideas in the form of documentation can be very problematic, even if they include models and drawings, photographs and plans, video and archives. They can frankly end up being dry and boring for anyone not deeply interested in the ephemera of environmental and social practices.

Two artists addressed this challenge beautifully for the Festival. Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman came up with a genius solution by assuming that this was a performative problem rather than a problem of display.  They describe The Archivist as a collaboration with performer David Giblin.

We met The Archivist at the village hall in Gretna Green, just across the road from one of the tackiest parts of the Scottish tourism industry – the Old Blacksmith’s Shop.

The Archivist had his audience in the palm of his hand. He was talking to a group of school children, introducing them to the Archive. He was elegantly dressed in a frock coat and cravat, clearly channelling the antiquarian who has researched the obscure world of artists and designers working on environmental issues. Dumfries and Galloway is of course home turf for antiquarians, researching the monuments of neolithic, bronze and iron age, and Celtic cultures.  But the school children were entranced and more importantly engaged with complex ideas and creativity. What more could you ask for?

The Archivist was showing them one of George Wyllie’s (1921-2012) Spires. He captured Wyllie’s spirit in his demonstration of the simple idea of equilibrium.

George’s spires which, from 1982 onwards, he positioned throughout the UK as well as Europe and the US too, celebrated “the places on which they stood. The spire was a very basic structure with the rod going upwards, counterbalanced by a stone and set on a tripod of steel or wood to enable it to move about, like the sails of a ship. In simple rhythm with nature and without complications, the spire freely compromises itself to praise the planet. Air, Stone, Equilibrium, Understanding.” (from the George Wyllie website)

The Archivist had a large, velvet lined trunk next to him which was filled with ideas in the form of iconic ephemera. You could ask him about any of them and he’d pull out the object and set it on the elegant and slightly anachronistic brass tripod. He’d demonstrate how the particular thing might work, explain what it meant and ask his audience about their ideas.

Another example from his trunk was a model of a high voltage electricity transmission pylon covered in vegetation, a proposal by Andrea Geile who is concerned with “replacing lost forests and ever decreasing eco-systems by colonising existing man made structures in the environment.”  For a full list of the ideas that The Archivist was working with see the EAFS website.

Usually it’s performance that is the problem, the thing that can only be experienced through documentation. This reversal, using performance as a means to release new life in artworks which only exist as ideas, succeeds because it focuses on the interpersonal experience. These types of ideas are normally shared and discussed in small groups working to make them happen. It’s in discussions between artists, curators and producers, clients and funders, that these ideas are brought to life, literally brought to reality in often long process of negotiation and project development.  The Archivist was using one of the methods that normally exists in that process – the maquette.  A maquette is a model for a sculpture.  Everything in The Archivist’s trunk was a maquette for an idea, i.e. not necessarily literally a miniature of the proposed work, but rather a useful physical manifestation of the idea (the two highlighted above are literally maquettes).

Within the territory of the visual and applied arts, it is usually the artist’s voice which is foregrounded, and if not the artist’s then the curator/producer is the interlocutor of choice.  To involve a performer to represent the ideas of a visual artist is provocative, but what it necessitates is the foregrounding of methodology and the clarity of the idea.  Environmental and social practices are perhaps more interested in the pedagogical dimensions of the work, and also owe more of a debt to performance art for their aesthetic, as Claire Bishop has recently suggested.

If there is a key reference point for this as a work in itself, it is surely Allan Kaprow’s Gallery in a Hat.  As I remember it Kaprow would approach someone in a bar for instance and say “Would you like to see the gallery in my hat?”  He’d proceed to take objects out of the hat and relate the stories associated with each.  Kaprow’s work in turn relates back to dadaist and surrealist poetry created by pulling words or phrases out of a hat (and of course to William Burroughs’ Cut-Up technique).

We look forward to meeting The Archivist again.

The Archivist, Performer David Giblin, Photo Kim Ayres
The Archivist, Performer David Giblin, Photo Kim Ayres

Chris Fremantle’s review of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland will be published in the International e-Journal of Creativity and Human Development (the link will be updated when the article is published).

You can contact Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman to explore how The Archivist might help you with communicating your ideas to your audiences through Jo’s website.

3 thoughts on “The Archivist

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  1. Chris, thanks for sharing your experience – an inspiring way to start the week! The performative element of a social practice happens in many ways and runs a sometimes indistinguishable line between the voice of the artist and the many participants we are in dialogue with. The trajectory of the ‘performance’ is generative and also of an uncertain nature – working out a shared direction through each interaction and the new language this sets up between participants. Jo and Robbie’s intervention of an actor as the voice of the artist in the guise of the archivist in this sense is interesting and makes me want to know if he used improvisation as a technique or carefully followed a script? Could you tell? And were the artists observing the interactions, engaging in them, or both? All very best, Helen.

  2. Hi Helen,

    Thankyou for your interest in The Archivist.

    Although The Archivist is a performance, it is very important to us that he exists as a real person rather than an act. He does not use any of the techniques that performers might use in a public space, to attract attention and gather an audience around them to perform to, or to disperse the audience when they have finished. He is passive, people come to him out of curiosity.
    He is always by himself, we are never there.

    He doesn’t embark on a prepared narrative but lets peoples interest in the objects he carries, lead him. His role is to become part of a conversation between the objects and the people looking at them. Every conversation will be different and take a different journey through the objects within the trunk. He is a collector of ideas – peoples thoughts on the artworks and the ideas they have, are just as important to him as the artists ideas.

    When we started work on the project we contacted all the artists we had room for and to our surprise they were, without exception, very happy to be involved in the project. Some made their own maquettes or objects, some were made by us. David (the performer and also visual artist) then started an ongoing dialogue with artists as The Archivist so that he had enough background information to be able to talk around the works with confidence.

    To us, he is neither performing nor improvising, he is conversing.


    Jo and Robbie

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