Hannah Leighton-Boyce: Instruments of Industry

In Instruments of Industry Hannah Leighton-Boyce reactivates a collection of handtools that have lain dormant in Touchstones Rochdale’s archive since the earliest recorded accession in 1979. Housed in a former engineering works the archive contains a collection of historical and contemporary artworks, as well as artefacts and documents pertaining to the local history of the region. Alongside these a collection of tools that were once held in the hand to mould, shape, cut or measure material from leather to wood and copper, have been catalogued and shelved in the museum’s archival store. Separated from their intended use and the gestures of their practical application, these pliers, callipers, saws and plains are now handled with a softer touch – held as little as possible and with a level of protective care that was absent from their previous life. No longer used to pull, cut, measure or saw they are put to rest rather than to work in the archive. Removed from the world of work they have become objects to be preserved, exhibited, observed and historically considered.

Still, resting and sleeping objects fill the archive. Row upon row of artefacts and artworks are meticulously catalogued and carefully housed upon standardised metal shelving. Preserved within the climate-controlled environment, the objects, once full of life, find themselves suspended from their prior functionality. Nowhere perhaps is the contrast between active instrument and passive object, between living and sleeping, more palpably felt than with this collection of handtools. In his essay on the Valery Proust Museum of 1967, Adorno writes,

The German word Museal (museum like) has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present.[1]

For Adorno, the museum (and by extension the archive) is a place devoid of life – objects exhibited within its confines have lost their active role within the social sphere and are now appreciated for their aesthetic and historical value instead. They are effectively laid to ‘rest’ behind the thick glass of the museum’s vitrines or high upon the shelves of the archive.

Working with the archived collection of tools, Leighton-Boyce has woken them from their slumber and re-introduced an element of life to the resting objects. Yet instead of simply reusing them, reactivating their original functions between hand and material, Leighton-Boyce animates the tools by extracting the unique quality of sound produced when struck by another object. Gently tapping each tool with a musical beater, the mute surfaces vibrate to click, ring, and chime different frequencies. From the recording of each tool’s resonant sound, Leighton-Boyce has developed an audio installation within the museum’s public gallery. Occupying a small gallery room, two rows of metal shelves mirror the archive environment by inviting the viewer to walk along a corridor of exhibited objects. The handtools are placed upon the shelves in the original order of their archival assemblage. Here, however, the collection of tools resting upon its protective shelving is juxtaposed with the tapping, chiming, chirping and ringing noises of their musical reanimation. Exhibiting both the tools and their accompanying sounds, Leighton-Boyce transports the hidden archive store into public view, representing the resting objects as a quietly chattering choral group.

Resonant bursts of sound echo along the archival corridor. Each tap, chime and click suggests something of a tool’s capacity for life independent of its human destination, a secret acoustic life uncovered by its ostensible miss-use. The ringing notes give each tool a ‘voice’ that is suggestive of an existence away from the schemata of human organisations of the social. Coining the term Object Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman proposes that the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world but between objects and relations. For Harman, objects exist independently of human perception. As such, all object relations, human and nonhuman, exist on equal ontological footing with one another. The object interacts, reacts and has a conscious existence independent from the hand or mind of the individual activating it. The object ‘speaks’ independently. With Harman’s philosophy in mind Leighton-Boyce’s ringing of the handtools serve as an audio marker of their individual ontological existence, bringing them outside of the archive into the gallery setting to further interact with and inform the exhibition environment. However, produced through movement, a wave of pressure and displacement through air that activates particles to vibrate, the production of sound introduces a suggestion of touch that returning the tools to their original association with the human hand. The tap of a beater evokes the stroke, touch or movement of an individual in a way that mirrors and therefore evokes the manner in which the tools would have been placed in relation to the body of a worker, the textual and auditory quality of the object as it is held and activated in the gestures of labour: instruments of industry.

Conceiving of the singular taps, chimes and clicks of each tool as a ‘voice’ might also introduce an anthropomorphic aspect to the life of the object. Aristotle writes in his essay on sound and hearing that a voice is a sound that issues from an animate being.[2] Making the tools ‘speak’ or ‘sing’ with unique frequencies Leighton-Boyce presents the tools as animated bodies. The tap of the musical beater reveals the tonal note and frequency of the tool’s physicality, activating its material particles to resonate with a unique frequency. A note or ‘voice’ issues forth from the ‘body’ of the tool. Here, a parallel can be drawn between the notion of a voice and the potential latent sound contained within other material forms. Activating the surface of an object or physical body results in the production of sound. The objects, bodies and environments within which we live our daily lives are submerged in and similarly contain differing frequencies of sound. Such frequencies can be perceived to unite and enliven the spaces and objects we are in constant relation to.

Considering such frequencies to emit an inherent musicality Leighton-Boyce has produced a series of blueprint drawings that detail the place of each tool within the archive and can be read to function akin to a musical score. Mapped out upon the gallery wall are eight rows of drawings mirroring the shelving system of the archive. Stretching along the wall the lines of blueprints become the latticework of musical notation with each singular tool read as a note upon the lines of a stave. Visualising the sound of the objects in this manner Leighton-Boyce invites us to reconsider the sleeping space of the archive as one of resonant sounds waiting to be played.

Walking along the narrow corridor of archival shelving we closely view each tool, listening to the sound of each item in the collection. The seemingly silent and resting space of the archive is animated into a quietly chattering soundscape. With each tool tapping, chiming or ringing, the acoustic rhythms suggest a form of communication between the displayed objects. The resting tools are enlivened through the sounds that emerge from their material bodies, whether suggestive of the touch and gestures of worker’s hands or indeed indicative of an independent life and relationality extending far beyond their historical function and use.

[1] Douglas Crimp. On the Museums Ruins. Cambridge Massachucettes: MIT Press, 1993. p.44.

[2] Aristotle. De Anima (On The Soul) translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred. London: Penguin Books 1986.

Laura Mansfield is a curator based in Manchester.

Image courtesy Simon Liddiard.

Hannah Leighton-Boyce – Instruments of Industry, Touchstones Art Gallery, Rochdale.

25 March – 11 June 2016.

Published 17.06.2016 by James Schofield in Reviews

1,267 words