Rising from the Rubble: ‘Reference Works’ at Birmingham Library

Part II: Rising from the Rubble: Lacon and Whipps

For Part I, see ‘Viewing the Building Site.’

The second part of discussion at ‘Building the Archive’ was led by two photographers, Andrew Lacon and Stuart Whipps.  They both partook in the Reference Works Project, and both discussed their contributions to Birmingham’s evolving photographic collection.

The Reference Works Project asked photographers to reflect on Birmingham Library’s transition from 1970s buildings, to the grand, modern facilities it occupies today.  Here, concepts of ‘alternative knowledge’ and ‘muted counter histories’ loomed large, with each artist attempting to give a voice to otherwise hidden narratives.  For Lacon, it was the forgotten ‘process’ of building / creating, and for Whipps, the otherwise obfuscated architectural ruins.

In relation to this, as an introductory note, I wish to draw a comparison with the work of historian and philosopher, Hayden White.  White aimed to make a theory of ‘historical interpretation’, based on a redefinition of traditional, ‘historical’ understanding.[1]  He argued that language itself (in our case, visual language is just as important) imposes a limited choice of rhetorical forms, necessarily implying specific emplotments and ideological stances.  By focusing on the forgotten, the counter histories, Lacon and Whipps are questioning these previously objective criteria of understanding.  Their work puts forward alternative interpretations of Birmingham’s transformation – challenging the notion of one, objective interpretation of change.  Here, indeterminacy is king.

Andrew Lacon chose to emphasise the architectural features of the building work himself.  He identified specific, yet otherwise unremarkable features; the angular pattern of a staircase, a plank of wood leaning against a wall, or a bowing piece of MDF and transformed them into minimalist, two-dimensional works of art.  These were all features of the old building, and the construction process itself that would have been lost, or perhaps never even noticed in the first place.

Lacon chose to show his photographs, white blocks, placed on pedestals and monochrome backgrounds, alongside images of the ‘reality’, the actual objects inspiring their creation.  The photographs were integrally site-specific, each responding to a single aspect of the library’s transition.  However, Lacon felt that his work, taken out of context, had no place in the archive, in his own words, it was ‘nothing in itself’.  He claimed it only made sense when viewed alongside the changing building. This was an interesting break from the attitudes of Kirwan and Griffin, who very much felt their artwork (either commissioned or created) belonged in the banks of posterity.

Lacon argued that the working process was much more important than the finished product; the actual documentation of the site was key.  He supposed future artists, looking back, would be more likely to respond to documents surrounding the building itself, real events, rather than his representations of them.  But without Lacon’s work, and his careful documentation of his working method, such objects and histories would have no existence at all. With his photographs, Lacon transformed ‘concept’, that moment of transition, into a material object, something designed to be stored, in permanent stasis in the archives.  His work, whilst representing transferences, was a shifting entity itself.

When you have an answer, you give up.  – Lacon

Second to speak was Stuart Whipps.  His work revolved around the paradoxical nature of ‘materiality’ and ‘idea’, very similarly to Lacon – though theorised in a different manner.  Whipps was fascinated by two structures:  A crumbling 1970s brick wall (which he meticulously took apart, and kept with the hope of re-instating it) and a collection of uncategorised archival boxes.  Whipps was interested in their existence in one place, as object – then transferred, re-imagined in the photographic location.

Again, like Lacon – these works were intended as ‘symbolic’ of the architectural ruins.  In essence, the photographs re-instigated the label of ‘object’ for these bricks and boxes; something to be viewed and debated.  As Whipps stated, his work was an ‘exercise in solidifying.’  The archival boxes were a particularly interesting aspect – the image itself could be read as frustratingly reductive, showing us the boxes, stuffed with files, yet never letting us explore them.  In a way, this directly contrasts with its archival, documentary function; reducing, providing few ‘access points’ whereas archives themselves, if operated properly, hope to expand and create.  Whipps wanted to push this concept though – looking at how the boxes’ different uses formed wider narratives.  In their new existence, as photograph, the boxes are ‘accessed’ in different ways; their place and role in the world is understood differently.

This led Whipps onto a philosophical dilemma: the ship of Theseus.  If a ship leaves port, yet on the journey is rebuilt plank by plank, entirely from scratch (yet in an identical fashion) – is it still the same ship arriving at the destination?  Whipps left this an open question, but I felt a solution was possible.  If one reduces ‘object’ to its physical nature, then no – the ship is not the same, but if it is the ‘concept’ the notion of the ship itself that is paramount, then yes – it is the self-same ship.

So, with regards to Whipp’s work, do ‘materiality’ or ‘function’ take precedence?  It seemed to be ‘materiality’; the actual bricks which he so carefully salvaged, hoping one day to re-instate, for the ‘Brick Wall’ – and ‘function’;  a focus on differing conceptions and narratives, for the ‘Archival Box’.  So, no – in their changed state, the bricks are no longer the same, but yes – after their transference, the archival boxes remain equivalent.

Indeterminacy still reigns.

To come…

UNDERSTANDING THE HOUSE:  Golding

WALKING THE CORRIDORS: Williams, Power and McKee


[1] Hayden White, ‘The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation’, Critical Enquiry (September, 1982).

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3 thoughts on “Rising from the Rubble: ‘Reference Works’ at Birmingham Library

  1. Pingback: Building the Archive | ameliacarruthers

  2. Pingback: Understanding the House | ameliacarruthers

  3. Pingback: Walking the Corridors | ameliacarruthers

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