Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Clare Qualmann, an artist and researcher based in the UK. Clare’s work came to my attention after I saw reference to an article of hers, The Artist in the Library, published in Performance Research: Vol. 22, No. 1. Today we ask Clare questions about her own library-incubated work, as well as her research on similar projects. Enjoy! ~Laura

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Please introduce yourself and your work to our community. 

Clare Qualmann (CQ): My name is Clare Qualmann, I’m an artist, lecturer and researcher. I make work that reflects on ordinary and everyday routines – and am interested in the meshwork of connections between people, place and politics.

LAIP: What is or has been your relationship to libraries, as an artist, as a reader, researcher (or all of the above) — however you feel like answering.

CQ: I was an avid reader growing up – and I used the school library at my secondary school extensively, as well as reading my parents books at home. We lived in a village with no library but when I was a little bit older I used the library in the local town (Winchester – one of the first public libraries on the UK) and would work through shelves of novels there after school and before going to work in the evening.

As an art student I was really encouraged to contextualise my visual work – and support what I was doing by referencing a broad range of artists and diverse other sources – always using the library as a base. Revelations included the discovery of a (CDROM) index to journal articles when I was at Winchester School of Art, and an amazing room full of exhibition catalogues and artists’ monographs at Liverpool Art School’s library. I left art school in 1999, moved to London, and my first job was as a part time library assistant in a university art and design library. Having spent a summer bereft of access to journals and books on the scale that I was used to, it was amazing to be back in an environment surrounded by resources. The library was also a very supportive space in which to develop my art practice. Several of my colleagues were artists, and the students and staff from the university contributed to the sense that the library played a core role in the creative process. I worked there for 8 years.

Now there are a number of libraries I use – in different ways. I love my local libraries – Hackney Central and Dalston – and often work there. Hackney Central has a really good collection of reference books on London. The successor to the library that I worked in for so long – which is now part of London Metropolitan University is an amazing place too and I often go there to work when I need to research a broad theme or get access to a wide range of art books. Their collection is outstanding – a testament to 20 years of meticulous purchasing by the former librarians Paul Semple and Richard Farr. I also really like the map room at the British Library (even when I’m not looking at maps) though I find the closed stack system isn’t great for the way I like to work – there’s no way to browse!

LAIP: Do you have an example of a library-inspired piece of work or series of works that you can share with us?

CQ: One of the first library based works that I made was an artists’ book ‘An Ode to Shelf Tidying: a Poem for the 709.24s’. One of the most monotonous jobs in a library with open stacks is shelf tidying. The task is to check that every single book is in the correct order on the shelf, and if it isn’t to make it so. We used to do it for an hour on Monday mornings, before the library opened for users, and when it had been busy and there was a mess. In the Dewey Decimal Classification system three-letter extensions are added to numerical class marks to enable more precise shelf locations – especially in sections that have a lot of books at the same class mark. In an art library, sections like 709.24, described in the Dewey scheme as ‘description, critical appraisal, biography, works of artists not limited to or chiefly identified with a specific form’ (OCLC 2016, p.787), have hundreds of books in them that need to be placed in alphabetical order – usually by the first three letters of the author’s surname or the artist-subject of the book. So as I would go along tidying I would say the letters in my head, or sometimes aloud, making a kind of nonsense poetry: ‘ABA, ABR, ACC, ACC, B, B, BAL, BAN’ and so on, a micro performance for myself and for the accidental audience around me. 

“Ode to Shelf Tidying” pages 1 & 2. By Clare Qualmann.

The artist’s book that I made records the same bookshelf at two points – firstly when messy, secondly when tidied. The first version of the book was made using moveable rubber type, set in a simple block formation. My decision to record two ‘polar’ states – one of perfect order, and one of utter mess – reflected the very different attitudes of library colleagues, some of whom seemed to embrace disorder as an indicator of successful library use, and others who regarded users as a nuisance who disrupted their perfect order. Of course the reality of everyday library life was somewhere in between these two states, titled in my book ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, but the middle ground is so much harder to identify and capture compared to the extreme satisfaction of precise tight shelves, or the (possibly equally satisfying) view of shelves disrupted by very heavy use.

More recently I’ve been working on a series of photographs of empty libraries – which very sadly there are many of in the UK at the moment. 

LAIP: In addition to being an artist yourself, you have also researched the relationship of artists to libraries. Can you tell us a bit about that research and what you’ve found from examining the work of other library-incubated artists?

CQ: When I was working in the library I had many colleagues who were artists – and although they weren’t making work specifically about it, I was aware of an aesthetic influence, a sensibility perhaps, that connected with the work that we were doing. Repetitive tasks like the shelf tidying, but also book repairing and covering, cataloguing and labelling – the taxonomies of organisation. When I left the library job and was working as a lecturer one of the first projects I did with students was based in the library. Researching lectures for this class I began to uncover many many more artists whose work related to, was based in, or drew upon libraries and my thinking on these aesthetics continued. My recent article (The Artist in the Library, Performance Research, 2017) draws together this thinking, along with archival research and interviews with artists to define a set of library aesthetics – these include; practices of classification, cataloguing and organisation; languages of display; ephemera and the palimpsest of shared use; ideas of order and chaos; and relational aspects of library interaction connecting in turn to discourse around conceptual art, the everyday and systems art as well as social practice.

LAIP: What does your ideal library, real or imagined, look like? What does it have in it? What does it feel like?

CQ: It’s easy to idealise things that have gone! But Commercial Road library, where I worked for so long, was pretty close. It had some very well designed spaces for sitting and reading – desk spaces and study carrels, but also more comfortable seating too. Loads of plants – an extraordinary hibiscus that would flower spectacularly. Staff are vital – librarians with lateral thinking skills and a good general knowledge, approachable, helpful, interested. The collection (as I’ve mentioned above) is vital too – ideally this is a comprehensive art and design history, with plenty of cultural studies, sociology, architecture, economics, psychology, urban studies, theatre and performance, history thrown in too. Diverse and unusual publications too – artists books, zines and self published works. An approach to purchasing that is really active and engaged so the contemporary is well represented as well. and journals, newspapers, magazines…..  

Read more about Clare Qualmann and her work at her website, clarequalmann.co.uk.

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