Ropes, tropes & bots (or: What the Museum Finds Hard to Say)

24 Apr


This is the text of a talk delivered at the Freud Museum symposium, Beyond the White Cube Exploring Artists Interventions at the Freud Museum and Beyond, on Saturday 22 April 2017, accompanying the exhibition Temporarily Accessioned: Freud’s Coat Revisited by Paul Coldwell.


1. Museums and artists

This talk is a story of ropes and connections, galleries and websites, artists and museums, and the question of what any of us can say with the means at our disposal.

About six years ago, I was walking up Maresfield Gardens from the direction of Finchley Road when I stumbled into a dream. In front of me was a suburban villa, wrapped in what looked like extraordinary fibrous ropes of some kind. My first thought was to wonder — if this is a dream, what is the meaning of this dream? Was it some kind of parable about the entrapments of domesticity (At the time I was married, but I hadn’t yet had kids)? Or was there some kind of even deeper  meaning?

It couldn’t have been more perfectly Freudian. And of course it was — because what I was looking at was Alice Anderson’s work ‘Housebound’, part of her 2011 installation for the Freud Museum,‘Childhood Rituals’, which also included the rather eerie ‘Confinement Room’. Collectively the works were an engagement with the ideas of both Sigmund and Anna Freud, whose home this building was.


This rather uncanny experience was an introduction for me to the world of artists working with museums, and the idea of the ‘intervention’, an artistic practice that responds to the museum, sometimes in what seems to be a confrontational way, politically, curatorially or aesthetically. At the Freud Museum, Alice Anderson disrupted the unity of Freud’s famous study with ‘Web’, a single strand forming a barrier between Freud’s couch and his desk.

Around the same time, the artist and curator Mark Dion gave a talk at London’s Natural History Museum about his work with curiosity and natural history collections and, among other things, polar bears. During the course of the talk he tackled some of the issues around how and why museums and artists choose to work together like this. A single phrase stood out for me: “The artist can say things that the museum finds difficult to say.”


This was less an explanation than a puzzle. Why should museums find things hard to say, and artists find them easy? It sounds slightly counterintuitive in light of the generally increasing accessibility of museums and the reputation of contemporary art for wilful obscurantism. Surely museums are the places where artists’ work becomes easier to understand?

So I looked for evidence in the history of the development of collaborations and works between artists and museums. The annals of conceptual art and the idea of ‘institutional critique’ offered some theoretical underpinnings but fewer trenchant examples in practice of something that, by the 1990s was becoming increasingly widespread.


25 years ago this month, Fred Wilson staged an intervention at the Maryland Historical Society, Mining the Museum, which might help us understand the kinds of things that museums find difficult to say. Wilson’s intervention, organised by Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum, and displayed throughout the historical society’s museum sought to explore the absences and denigrations of Black and Native American people in the official presentation of the history of the state. One piece in the intervention, Metalwork 1723-1880, simply juxtaposed decorative silverwork with a pair of slave shackles, calling attention to the genocidal brutality that underpinned the early United States’ wealth and expressions of culture. Museums of slavery certainly exist, but as Wilson said about his project, “You’ll have a museum for the beauty of the art world and then you’ll have museums for the horrors of our world and never will you have them in the same museum.” Perhaps here what one museum has difficulty in saying is what another museum already knows very well.


In the UK in 1985, the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi spent three years working at London’s Museum of Mankind to produce the exhibition Lost Magic Kingdoms: And Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl.Though dealing with ethnographic collections that certainly contain similarly problematic evidence of colonial racism, Paolozzi’s approach was less politically confrontational. Where the Museum of Mankind had traditional ethnographic displays, Paolozzi reconfigured them by aligning objects with aesthetic similarities, and including works of his own which he felt possessed similar properties. The museum’s curator Malcolm McLeod saw ‘new patterns of meaning’ here — perhaps Paolozzi was saying something that the museum suspected, but didn’t know how to say.


Mark Dion’s own work often concentrates on resurrecting historical modes of display as a means of looking anew at the objects we have. The idea of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or the wunderkammer is widely used and often abused today, but Dion’s work is the most rigorous and wide-ranging in examining lost ways of looking at things. His work for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota brings together over fifty separate university collections and rearranges them in nine cabinets ordered by Renaissance classifications of the human and natural world. Looking back to the very earliest incarnations of what we now think of as museums, what Dion is trying to say with this is what the museum has forgotten how to say.


But collaborations between museums and artists are not always so highbrow. In 2009, Bristol Museum opened its doors on a surprise show, Banksy vs Bristol Museum. The famous stencil graffiti and street artist had been given the run of the entire museum, secreting his trademark anthropomorphised rats into natural history displays, with a burnt-out  ice cream van serving as an information kiosk as the focal point of the installation. Low humour met high art here, with many of the same seemingly-obvious points about authority and commercialisation in museums that emerged in the work of the institutional critique tradition in the 1970s and 80s. The show was hugely popular (I queued for 40 minutes to get in) and enormously successful not only for the museum but also for the local economy, Bristol-born Banksy’s own contribution to civic pride. It’s easy to malign Banksy, but the exhibition contained a lot of everyday humour that’s often missing from museums. Maybe Banksy here altered us to the fact that some of the things that the museum finds difficult to say are the things that everybody else already knows.

These are the kinds of things that happen when a museum collides with an artist over a brief period of time. What happens when you have a more sustained series of collaborations with artists and start to say something together? I’ll try to answer that with a brief look at the Freud Museum and a slightly longer look at my own area of work at Wellcome Collection.

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Early exhibitions at the Freud Museum, including Susan Hiller’s At The Freud Museum in 1994 played with ideas of collecting and arranging things in and of themselves: ideas with Freudian elements, but not intimately springing from either the life of the Freud family or the immediate environs of the museum. Sarah Lucas’s The Pleasure Principle in 2000 engaged in a lively dialogue with the spaces and furniture of the household, as well as skewering a few Freudian fundamentals. Paul Coldwell’s Freud’s Coat in 1996 and the current exhibition Temporarily Accessioned: Freud’s Coat Revisited, addressed Freud’s transition to England, as well as the idea of migration and the possessions that you bring with you on a journey.

For me it was Alice Anderson’s work that achieved the most subtle and complete engagement with the family home, the structure of the building and the ideas of both Sigmund and Anna.


Many of the artists working at the Freud have chosen to focus on Freud’s couch as a central object. Alice’s choice of Anna’s loom feels itself like an intervention in the history of interventions at the Freud, a reminder of what has been overlooked, accompanied by a simultaneous fascination with and deep ambivalence about the ideas of psychoanalysis.

And it also overcame an oppositionality in the practice of working with museums themselves, moving from an idea of critique, to a practice of collaboration. Together, Alice and the Freud Museum were capable of saying what neither could say alone.

2. Artists and Makers


Walking away from the Freud Museum, three miles in a roughly southeasterly direction, through Regent’s Park if you like, you arrive at another, slightly larger museum. I work at this museum, Wellcome Collection. We’re part of the Wellcome Trust, a giant medical charity that fund scientific research. As a museum, we’re ten years old this summer — old enough to have developed a small tradition, and young enough not to be hidebound by it. Our permanent exhibition stems from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and unstoppable collector, but we also produce interdisciplinary exhibitions and events around the themes of the health sciences, and we also have a library with iconographic and archival collections. We sometime call ourselves ‘the destination for the incurably curious’.


My work there is mostly in digital. I manage a team that runs our editorial content and social media. But I also work with artists on digital commissions that enhance and extend the work that forms part of the exhibitions, and more recently that begin as digital projects before they find a physical manifestation in the gallery.

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In 2010 we worked with the artist Keith Wilson to produce a simulacrum of the museum digitisation process to accompany his gallery exhibition ‘Things’. Keith ran a week-long project collecting and borrowing objects from members of the public. There was a certain amount of museum theatre here: Keith collected signed acquisition forms from members of the public, and donned white gloves to take receipt of objects that up until that moment had been nothing special. We provided some digitisation theatre, as the objects were photographed and uploaded to Flickr in full view of the public, from where they were pulled down to be displayed on our website as part of the ‘calendar of things’ which Keith had also constructed in the gallery.

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More recently, in 2015, we worked with Sejla Kameric on her ‘Ab Uno Disce Omnes’ installation for our Forensics exhibition. In the gallery, this took the form of a full-sized mortuary fridge inside which were screened computer-sequenced clips relating to the atrocities which took place in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian wars. Online, Sejla and her collaborators compiled a database of evidence relating to the atrocities and their context, containing everything from details of UN investigations to reports on weather and soil conditions. The effect was to provide a near-incomprehensible wall of factual evidence lacking almost any kind of narrative or organising function, suggesting the problems that face forensic investigators when they approach the enormity of war crimes.

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We also worked with the musician Matthew Herbert as part of last year’s ‘This Is A Voice’ exhibition. Matthew, whose recent work investigates the democratic and egalitarian aspects of collectively-created sounds, made a work called ‘Chorus’ for us. Visitors were invited to step inside a recording booth, and to sing one note as pure and long as they could. Each visitor’s note was added to an algorithmically-controlled rising and falling chorus that eventually grew to include all the contributed voices. In the gallery space the effect was almost reverential; online, we decided to make it more playful, and allowed visitors to the website to filter the chorus, not only by pitch, and the date of recording, but also using more tangential factors, such as the performance of the stock market at the time the voices were recorded.

Working on Chorus was also for me an exploration of the relationship between digital artists and digital makers. The conceptual and artistic work on Chorus was Matthew’s, but the digital interface was developed by Toby Ashley, a developer from Brighton. Rather than the more traditional relationship that an artist might have with an assistant or member of their studio, we created the connection between Matthew and Toby, allowing two creatives who work in very different dimensions of digital to come together. (There’s a small moment of absolute genius here on Toby’s part: Matthew wanted the interface to include something like ‘the tangle of wires behind a mixing desk’, evincing a kind of meaningful but ineffable complexity — Toby’s response was to include the code used to generate each filtering of the chorus as the background image to the page on which it appeared: the perfect digital equivalent of Matthew’s concept). Similarly, when we produced an interactive version of Chris Dorley-Brown’s longitudinal video portrait series, Fifteen Seconds Part 3, the detailed creation of the visual media was done by Chris, but the interactive implementation was carried out by another developer, Danielle Huntrods.


One of my own ideas that didn’t work out was when we had a solo show by Alice Anderson four years after the show here at the Freud Museum. Alice’s practice included wrapping individual items in red fibre as a means of memorialising and remembering them in the context of a digitally ephemeral era. I thought it would be nice to have our website itself ‘wrapped’ in virtual red fibre, disappearing from sight as users watched, but this was too far from Alice’s work for her to be comfortable with it.

Even when produced in the context of temporary exhibitions, digital work can have multiple layers of meaning in relationship to the museum; for Keith Wilson we reimagined a digitally-centred museum; for Matthew Herbert and Chris Dorley-Brown, we facilitated the relationships that realised the works. But if Wellcome Collection is using artists to say something here that it can’t say itself, it’s doing it subtly. And it’s being reminded, in the case of Alice Anderson, that the artist can’t be coerced by the museum into saying things that they don’t want to say.

3. Asylums and bots


Last autumn, we took a small leap forward in digital commissioning. Wellcome Collection opened an exhibition called Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond. It was curated by Mike Jay and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, and it explored the evolution of ideas about mental illness, taking the three historical instances of Bethlehem Hospital — the 18th century madhouse, the 19th century asylum and the 20th century mental hospital  — as starting points for thinking about the institution of the asylum, alternatives to it, and the possibility of rescuing the idea of the asylum in contemporary mental healthcare.

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The final section of the exhibition used the work of contemporary artists to explore the post-asylum world: a complex marketplace, where prescription medications and clinical treatment coexist with spiritual therapies, online support and healing or creative practices. In Shana Moulton’s video work, her alter ego, Cynthia, suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome, and looks to TV, health magazines and spiritual sources for relief. A new commission for the exhibition was Madlove: A Designer Asylum. As part on an ongoing project, artists Hannah Hull and the Vacuum Cleaner ran workshops with people with lived experience of poor mental health in range of settings including psychiatric hospitals. They accumulated thousands of suggestions for how a utopian asylum could look and work, creating an architectural model that expressed this collective vision.

The internet was also of particular interest. For the curator Bárbara, the internet presented conflicting visions for the future of mental health: it offers a platform for peer support and advice but it can also have an alienating effect, obscuring the need for real-life community structures. Personally, I don’t recognise the difference between ‘real life’ and the internet, but I was really keen to work with Bárbara on a digitally-led commission for the exhibition to explore these issues. We wanted something that would complement the final section of the exhibition, exploring the role of the internet in contemporary mental health, looking at phenomena like forums, self-care strategies, and therapeutic communities accessing advice and treatment from different global contexts. We wanted something that related to or manifested itself in networked space in some meaningful way, was aesthetically engaging, possibly involving interactive elements for the user. What we didn’t want was anything that looked like any actual kind of therapy.


We chose to work with the artist Erica Scourti. Her work grabbed us because she used the internet as a medium, and had made work which was sensitive to how technology mediates our sense of self, and the ways in which we create proxies of ourselves online. The works that appealed to us were ones like ‘Life in Adwords’, in which she mailed her daily diary to gmail, and then performed to her webcam the  advertising keywords which Google suggested.

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The work that Erica created for us, Empathy Deck, is a twitter bot which creates automated responses to your tweets and tries to tell you that it feels the same way. It uses a combination of material: against a collage of Erica’s drawings, there’s  some self-help or healing texts, combined with text extracted from Erica’s own diaries, and a symbolic object, often Erica’s own face. It’s playful and often funny — the idea was not to create a genuine therapy tool, or even anything that could be mistaken for one, but to explore the idea of what an automated empath would look like, a programme that responded to you from its own experience, a kind robot.

We launched Empathy Deck when the exhibition opened, it’s still active and to date has just under 2,000 followers and has tweeted nineteen thousand times. For a bot, people seem to regard it quite fondly, they often fave or reply to its automated tweets. Sometimes it seems like it really does know how you feel. As you can see from the examples, the way it responds is smart, but it’s not using any real kind of artificial intelligence — instead it looks at the text and then looks for a match in Erica’s own text. What gives it its bite, is that Erica’s texts are real, from her diary, not automatically generated like many bots. You might say that the bot is Erica’s proxy and that she really does feel the same way as you, she just got there first.

Another proxy here was the artist, coder and developer Tom Armitage who Erica partnered with to develop the bot itself. This wasn’t a relationship that Wellcome Collection brokered, Erica was actually working in the same building as Tom, but it was one that we facilitated and project managed. Like the other artist and maker relationships it involved both collaboration and creative interpretation: Tom’s code wasn’t ‘clever’ — it didn’t create any kind of artificial intelligence; instead it functioned to produce what others might mistake for a kind of automated intelligence, responding to people with ad-hoc artworks generated more rapidly than a human artist could.

Tom’s code, in the form of the bot, used Erica’s words to say what the museum didn’t have time to say.


Unfortunately, like all artificial life forms, there will come a time when Empathy Deck has to die. We could keep on paying for the server it runs on, and maybe for maintenance, but at some point the way twitter works will change, and it will break. So, better to shut it down while it’s still working properly, and archive it somehow.

But digital art is complicated and difficult to preserve or archive. A painting or sculpture can be conserved as a physical object, and its pretty much the same thing as it was, even if you move it from a living room to a museum or to a store. But the nature of digital art, that lives on a network, and often involves the participation of many people is a bit trickier.

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We could make a single document of it — we could put all the cards that it has generated into a single multi-page document and make that available online. That would be nice and simple, and satisfyingly completist — we’d have the full set, to refer back to.

But the cards themselves make more sense when you see what they’re in response to. In order to really understand the work, maybe we should also archive the tweets which they reply to. But is this ethical? Would this invade the privacy of the original tweeter? They’re mostly public tweets (they’ve probably been archived elsewhere) but is re-presenting them in the context only of our bot a violation of their confidence?

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We could archive the code of the bot itself, the computer programme that made it run. Tom would probably share it with us. Would Wellcome Collection ever want to collect code like this? It could look messy and strange like this, but other museums have started to think about how to collect digital artefacts and code itself — New York’s Cooper Hewitt acquired an early app as code, and MoMA have just acquired the original emoji character set.


If we acquire the code, should we also acquire Erica’s original diary text? The way that Tom’s written it, the code and diary text are intimately intertwined. We can certainly take one without the other, but would we really have the artwork itself if we didn’t have the texts that it was based on? On the other hand, to make the text available in any way would also surely be a gross invasion of Erica’s privacy. The bot works by making small amounts of Erica’s text available — we might think that we can see Erica in it, but that’s always an illusion.

We don’t have to make these decisions straight away, the bot is currently having a reboot, so maybe we have time to think about them? But it’s certainly true that when it comes to digital art, the afterlife of projects can be at least as complex as their conception. But here at least we are on familiar territory: the museum remembers what the artist once said.

4. Artists and Audiences


So, as I was preparing this talk, I was planning to end it here on a rather dry call to the digital archivists of the future, but then something rather wonderful happened.

As part of Wellcome Collection’s participation in the Sick of The Fringe Festival in February, we invited an artist called Busty Beatz, a self described “South African Woman of the Diaspora on Stolen land,  Agent of Social Change and Beat Making Mama”, part of the Hot Brown Honey collective, to stage an intervention in our permanent gallery, Medicine Man. It was called We Are The Latest Models of our Ancestry, and involved an audio and multimedia installation in the gallery itself.#


It entered into a playful but highly politically-charged dialogue with the contents of the gallery, encouraging the audience to reconsider the collecting practice of Henry Wellcome as an exploitative and colonial one (and perhaps to recognise his fondness for fancy dress in the context of what we now often call ‘cultural appropriation’). Posters by the collective highlighted the connections between the lived experiences of colonised people and the development of modern medicine. Outside the gallery there was a bronzed sponge cake bust of Sir Henry’s head, which visitors were invited to partake of as liberally as Sir Henry helped himself to the fruit of others’ cultures.


It has to be said that this wasn’t universally popular among everybody, and that there were also some uncomfortable facts to be faced about how our museum made other people feel. Some of us had to check ourselves for how comfortable we were with how uncomfortable it made us feel — it’s better to see this as the beginning of a journey for us into how we think about our collections and displays, rather than the completion of a critique.

And having given Busty a voice to speak in the context of the gallery exhibition, we turned back to social media and agreed with her collective to stage a weekend-long twitter takeover. For the duration of the installation of the intervention, we gave Busty the keys to the main Wellcome Collection twitter account to talk to our audience as she wished.

Our twitter feed is more than just an aspect of our website, more than just marketing. It’s how we talk (and listen) to our audiences everyday. We talk about what we’re doing, we respond to criticism, we offer people ways of engaging with what’s on in the venue and online. In lots of ways, our twitter account is as close to a single institutional voice as you’ll get for Wellcome Collection.


Half a dozen individuals around the world had access to our account for the three days, and kept the conversations going around the clock so our account would be active at every hour of the day across those three days.

People responded pretty well — there was widespread interest and engagement across Twitter, confronting head-on the colonial nature of much of our collection. Conversations like this are critical for us in opening the doors to this kind of dialogue with our audiences about the responsibilities we have in holding a wealth of multicultural artefacts.

And twitter of course is not just a medium for saying, but a medium for listening, a medium for having conversations. Perhaps what’s been missing in all my previous formulations of Mark Dion’s provocation about what the museum can or can’t say is the question of who’s listening. When Busty took over our twitter account and spoke with our voice, she certainly said things that we would find difficult to say, not only politically, but also tonally (like “patriarchy: what’s up with that?”). But she also found ears willing to listen, and other voices ready to join in the conversation, and take it a stage further.

Perhaps we’ve come a long way since Fred Wilson; perhaps we haven’t come quite so far. But maybe we are now able to say that the artist can talk to the museum’s audience in ways that the museum can’t.


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