Before the millennium, nation states and church fetes shared a strange affinity expressed in a very analogue gesture: burying time capsules. School projects saw Spice Girls CDs and PANINI football stickers sellotaped in empty margarine tubs with local newspaper cuttings. A more elevated effort by the White House Millennium Council compiled the greatest hits of US modern culture and diplomatic sovereignty – images of US troops and fibre optic cables with recordings of Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King – into a Pentegram-designed metal vessel, wrought like a rippling American flag. There was a time capsule epidemic in Soviet Russia too, people keep unearthing missives from 1967 to future celebrants of the never-arrived 2017 Soviet centenary. These letters betray a heady strain of anxiety and vanity; bombastic declarations of communist aspiration and social cohesion written to a brighter future, an act of desperation, willing the existence of better times, continuity and progress.
Believing in a future enough to address it is a comforting ritual. Acts of patriotism and preservation, these ceremonies were less about communing across time and space than they were modes to shore an uncertain present, to coalesce a collective identity while stage-managing its reading in the future. Part existential disquiet, part pop-culture aggrandisement, these projections betray a compulsion to author history as it is lived – most urgently, our own role and appearance in it.
Throughout March, strangers arrived at Crosby Library for Press Room – daily news reading sessions instigated by Turner Prize nominee Ciara Phillips. The aim was framed loosely as saving whatever seemed salient in the count-down to March 29 2019 – the day that Brexit didn’t happen. Daily papers spread on a shared table, accessorised by scissors, paper and glue were the tools to excavate and analyse. In a scene reminiscent of the clock calamity in the BBC series 2012, mid-month the group noticed the Brexit countdowns had disappeared, without fanfare or explanation, from the front pages – though the headlines kept coming; further evidence life has become stranger than satire.
Later, the stacks of collaged sheets will form a book for the library’s collection. Much, much later, looking at that artefact, readers might level accusations of retroactive reputation management at the group. Like the time capsule’s neurotic urge to shape a cohesive ‘we’, it’s impossible to project a coherent story of this moment into the future. Yet, much like the burying and unburying ritual, the reception of any future remnant matters less than the present enactment.
Philips is best known for the Turner Prize-nominated Workshop (2010–ongoing) – like Press Room it is a durational and situational instigation – a print room whose activities are shaped by the unplannable processes and outcomes of “making together”. The two projects share an unpredictable collaborative nature, but the political climate is a more explicit dynamic here: ‘I knew it would be contentious, but I really wanted to do something that related to the print material that is circulating – not just archiving and keeping it, but involving people in the process, allowing the idiosyncrasies of that to be part of it,’ Philips explains.
Though the continuing carousel of Brexit chaos is a shared context, a muddled thread tangling the days, reading the present together is fractured and individual realities collide to shape the work. Demographics, perspectives, unspoken life experiences accumulate into the curious stance of personal politics, an inescapable condition formed by gut feel, the roll of the socio-economic dice, and chance past experiences. This individual amalgam of allegiances and ideas are cumulative and acquired piecemeal, never wholly intentional and rarely easily rationalised or articulated. Taken as a group (any group – the daily team who gathered in the library, the community of a town, the city, the nation) these conditions become the badly tessellated patchwork parts of a fractious political agenda, weaponised and rounded up to that strange fiction that is “national identity”.
Mostly, participants did not share a contemporary art context; they were not there for the chance to work with a Turner Prize nominee or to consider the process as another twist in the archival turn – enacting remembering, scrutinising modes of recording and the actions inherent in the act. Asked if the project might constitute “archiving together”, Philips is sure it isn’t that – she wants to focus instead on something less self-conscious, something for the moment: ‘I’m always trying to do things that relate to now, rather than reflecting on the past or looking back’.
The newspaper is strewn across contemporary art history as an icon to contend with political upheaval. In Andy Warhol’s screen print series ‘Flash-November 22,1963’ (1968) to understand how the media ‘were programming everybody to feel so sad’ after JFK’s assassination; Hannah Höch remixes the status quo in the shuffle of newspaper photo montage; and the soothing enfoldment of infinity performed in Sarah Sze’s ‘Calendar Series’ (2013–2015). All these artists turned to print, manipulating its presence to question the construct of social experience.
Phillips is a printmaker, so the tactility and manipulation of the printed object is as significant as “the newspaper’s” status as authoritative mediator, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something with newspapers, so now I’ve invited other people to do it with me. But it’s such a changing time for print, in this form – it’s a moment when so many other things are intruding and shaping our experience’. Ominously, dominating the month is the terrorist massacre at a mosque in New Zealand, a tragedy that tugs on broader socio-political narratives that also string out the Brexit morass. Both events are, in part, propelled by the same forces: rising populism coalescing into far-right extremism; social disenfranchisement entrenching fear; amorphous anxieties about the shadowy labyrinth of social media “echo chambers”; conspiratorial neuroses about malevolent tech companies with neo-liberal algorithms prioritising clicks over social conscience.
There’s irony in such anxieties – in theory, social media answers a fundamental human need eroded in every slashing, shearing round of government cuts: that of togetherness and connection. The more monstrous iterations of the web, deployed so devastatingly in New Zealand, are articulations of the ugliest manifestations of human nature – and it’s dangerous to forget that these urges are human, not the imaginings of some autonomous machine. Similarly, manipulations of our news cycle attributed to hostile sources are another iteration in the long tradition of propaganda. Phillips reflects on how the process might draw our attention to those agendas: ‘it’s not just coming to read or to discuss together, but also doing something with it – making decisions about how to interpret, about what you place next to other things,’ a process which reveals more about the construction of the story than the content.
It’s hard to imagine any fervour for burying time capsules today, perhaps we’re all too busy with the daily work of social media identity-making, and the relentless merry-go-round of 24-hour news. To read Press Room as a record of the month Brexit didn’t happen misunderstands the compulsion that kept participants coming back: not an urge to remember, but an acknowledgement that the multitudes of vying narratives written into our histories means reading as its written is an inherently social activity.
But what about shifting the course of these bleak histories we are writing? There’s a story about Crosby and its libraries that speaks of the more insidious failures of “IRL” togetherness, a perfect storm of new media isolation and unsteady economies: the decline of civic life. There was another library in the town – built in 1905, the now empty, shuttered building was part of an international network of 2,506 libraries, one of 660 Carnegie Libraries built in the UK and Ireland from 1892–1919. Their patron, Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie, called them “Palaces for the People” – a lofty epithet for social spaces that allowed minds to expand and societies to fend off isolation. Though easily dismissed as idealistic patriotism, the tangible benefit of social infrastructure encouraging community is demonstrable. In the aftermath of natural disasters, sociologists have observed that communities armed with parks and libraries fare better and lose fewer lives than demographic equivalents lacking such spaces of togetherness. Press Room is part of the wider Human Libraries initiative in Sefton, founded by producer and curator Maria Brewster. The project’s philosophy is that everyone has ‘gifts of the heart, the hand and the head’ to offer their community, based on John McKnight’s theories of asset-based community development.
The reality of such philosophies and sociological studies is that the efforts are local, small scale and easily overwhelmed by our current tumult. Perhaps projects like Press Room and Human Library can act as radical new means to restore our ailing civic infrastructure – reading together, making together, arguing together – as active micro-gestures that might, cumulatively, counter the fragmentation that fuels our confusion.
Rachel Bennett is a writer and producer based between Liverpool and the UAE
Press Room ran at Crosby Library throughout March 2019.