ANNE: … and a need to reassess visibility; relative visibility. Was it always a desire to look back at the history of the region, too?
HA: I think so, yes. I was definitely interested in it. And I think because I’d been working with archives as well in my practice already, and enjoyed that process: you know, the idea of looking for something you don’t even know you’re looking for. That’s what I enjoy about those spaces. So I definitely thought, OK, well, I want to know more, on an individual basis as well.
ANNE: And then you curated the exhibition Women Artists of the North East Library at Workplace Gallery (22 June – 9 September 2018).
HA: Yes, so George Vasey was invited to present a show there in partnership with Cafe Gallery Projects in London (CGP, now Southwark Park Galleries) to coincide with the Great Exhibition of the North but he ended up being unable to produce both sites, so he got in touch and asked whether I’d be interested to curate something at Workplace instead. And I was — but it only gave me about three and half months before the exhibition was due to open. So I did it.
ANNE: Was that the first public manifestation of the library?
HA: It was the first opportunity, at least physically, I’d had to bring the library – the physical donations – together with artists and their work in the same space, and for the library to have a home where people could visit on a more regular basis.. Prior to that it was at The Northern Charter, which wasn’t publicly accessible because it was artists’ studios. It was difficult for people to see it without someone being there every day. So that was the first opportunity, yes, and to bring artists who were making work into a shared physical space with the library.
I invited other artists who were also working in some capacity in dialogue with another figure: another artist, a historical figure, a family member or a community. Tess Denman-Cleaver’s work for that show was created through a phone conversation with her mum; Phyllis Christopher‘s work was documentation of lesbian communities in places she was living and in some ways Phyllis’ approach was similar to the library’s aims. Kate Liston’s work had arisen from research into Ella Bergmann-Michel, a prominent Modernist I had no idea had showed work in the region in the 60s. And Harriet Sutcliffe’s work was also research-focused; in her case looking at the women who had studied on the Basic Design Course.
So yes, I was interested in other artists who have an interest in bringing other figures into their work. But it was very much an experimental proposal. It was a case of bringing togther a bunch of people whose work I liked: what will they be like together and with a library? It was thought through but assembled fairly quickly, and everyone showed existing work: we couldn’t commission anyone to make anything new. What was really exciting about that show, which then prompted everything that happened after, was really having a physical space in which to run a collaborative programme. The exciting thing for me was to use the library as a space in which to host events and for the library to be touched, read, made messy. We presented one event a week: I think we did 10 events for that exhibition alone!
ANNE: So you really established the model for what the library was to become.
HA: Yeah, definitely. A lot of that was inviting other people: curators and artists.
ANNE: So that was really key to it as well — its invitational structure. This is about exchange and reciprocity, like you said, and working in partnership. That was 2018: when did you go on to apply for funding for the library and present the series of commissions and events that have formed the shape it has taken most recently?
HA: Tess Denman-Cleaver (who then became Producer of the library) and I wrote the funding application during the first lockdown for money for a long-term programme, commissions and residencies in North East institutions, and research time. It hadn’t really had that much funding — or all its funding until that point had come from producing small events. You know, I’d get a fee for an event or something. And I think commissioning is something I’d always thought about: the idea of the library being responded to, being a generative thing, in a way probably similar to how I was responding to archives in the past, wanting to make work from things I’d found in collections, or not found in collections.
I was really interested in how other artists might do that with this library. Equally, I still wonder, sometimes, what do you do with this thing? It’s become a thing in its own right: it’s got a shape now; a physical library. How do other people want to use it? It doesn’t have to exist; it doesn’t have to have a structure like an institution does.
ANNE: That’s what makes it exciting, its provisionality; that fact it’s mobile. It can mould itself to the next iteration of whatever happens. So you were successful in getting Arts Council funding, and it was able to realise certain ambitions, is that fair to say? You were able to commission and to present a series of events with institutions as well. You’ve worked in partnership with institutions across the North East; artists have produced work with you, and you’re now at the end of that process, in terms of the funding, at least, so have you got a sense of what you want to do next, or are you taking stock? Is it going to be a case of having to get more funding to make more things happen, or working more with institutions, or do you not know yet?
HA: I think definitely a period of rest and taking stock. Over the past five years, even though I wasn’t producing events the entire time, I’ve presented a lot of events-based activity and never really scheduled in a break or time to reflect on what it is. It became one thing after another, and I wanted to try something new each time. But the last two years – the period the library had funding – I could work with Tess as Producer and Taryn Edmonds as Programme Co-ordinator, the library became a team. We were doing it together, which I loved, and that’s one way I think it can work, being led by a collective.
Something I have always thought about since the beginning, but haven’t had the capacity to take further, is creating a structure or a process by which anyone who’s making a donation can play a bigger part in what it is. Because there are over 300 items in it: there are a lot of artists that make the library what it is. What ways of working could share that responsibility somehow? But I think it’s about finding a structure that works and might be sustainable.
ANNE: It’s defined by the sum of its parts in some ways: what if donation were to mean something more than depositing material?
HA: Yeah, exactly. Maybe you donate a physical object but you might also donate time. Something that means that it can maintain itself. A huge part of it is maintenance. It’s about care for the objects and the artists but it’s also care of the structure and decision-making of where it goes. How can I dissolve a bit of that, I wonder?
ANNE: Exactly. So how can you resist becoming the de facto administrator — which changes the nature of it, I suppose, but also for you means that all this kind of admin work could be distributed. I didn’t realise it already contained over 300 objects: that’s a lot. And so it means that presumably at some point, it’s not going to be able to fit in your house any more, and you’ll need to house it somewhere. What would that mean?
It will change the nature of it in some way, and there are pros and cons to that. If and when you have to physically house it somewhere permanently, how do you think you might reconcile the need for it to be physically sited somewhere, even if it still remains mobile, with the fact that its provisionality is what has animated it so far?
HA: Yeah, I guess the way it’s worked when the library has been situated in another organisation has always been an in-residence arrangement, so it has always been a temporary relationship. It’s parasitic in that way, and I like that about it! It’s also been a way of housing the library rent-free: at Workplace, for example, we had a space for 10 weeks. Whatever that relationship is, it has to be the right organisation — one which also has the capacity, maybe, to facilitate its potentially changing nature, because I think the worst case scenario is that it goes into an archive.
ANNE: And that’s the thing an institution can’t do. It can’t accommodate something that’s in flux, because it needs to fix things — so it’s at odds with that. It’s an interesting problem to have to grapple with. But it sounds like you need some time now to work things out for the future.
HA: I think so, yes, time and a fallow period. And also, I guess, as I was saying at the beginning, it’s about working out where this sits in my whole practice, as an artist.
ANNE: That perhaps leads back to thinking about the other side of your practice: the making of both performance-based and moving image work. Is that something you’re still working on at the same time as well, or are you hoping to return to it?
HA: Over the last couple of years with the funding, no: I did prioritise the library and that did take up all my capacity really, outside of other jobs. Something I found really interesting that I felt as though I couldn’t do in the context of this two-year programme was to respond personally to some research I was doing about a video artist called Tamara Krikorian which came out of the research residency I undertook at Northumbria University. I presented a screening, Tamara Krikorian and Peers in May 2022 at the end of a couple of months’ research in other archives.
I just wanted to know more about Tamara. I’d come across her because Elaine Drainville, a researcher and sound recordist who has worked with Amber Film and Photography Collective and filmmakers like Melanie Chait, had mentioned in an interview for Andy Robson’s PhD that she was taught by Tamara at Northumbria University in the 70s, and I thought, who’s this video artist I don’t know anything about, I love video and film, and Elaine has been really influenced by her. I was interested in who this person was whom I knew nothing about. She’s obviously been in the region; she’s influenced people who were still here. Tamara taught at Northumbria University, only for a short amount of time, in the late 70s and early 80s — but in this exciting first decade of British video art.
I learnt Tamara organised the first symposium on video art in the UK, at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, which is now the CCA. She was really influential, working at the very beginnings of video art first for the then-Scottish Arts Council but then as an artist, and was a founding member of London Video Arts. But she only made work for 10 years or so, and then she stopped. She was also a writer, writing a lot for Art Monthly and elsewhere; and a teacher at various colleges. She lived in Edinburgh (just around the corner from Margaret Tait on Rose Street, whom she visited on Orkney too) but later moved to Wales and became the head of the Welsh Sculpture Trust. She had a practice which was quite expansive and very connected, but seems to have drifted out of focus perhaps because of the many different ways in which she worked, but also perhaps it of the specific time in which she was making moving image work, when the mass media technologies were very different. So for me she’s a really interesting figure. I’m interested in making more work in relation to her because I think she could potentially demonstrate for me a model of working which incorporates different relationships and practices. Also, her work feels somewhat topical again, thinking about the state of TV and journalism now.