Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Royal Albert Hall

I was greeted at the stage door by a friendly receptionist, on announcing who I had come to visit he gave me a knowing look and said, ‘ah, you’re the dust lady’’. I have grown accustomed to this becoming my pseudonym over the last few weeks, as I have been getting on my hands and knees collecting dust from all over London and beyond.

Jackie the archivist was my contact and she had found me, what she thought, might be the best spot to find dust in this otherwise meticulous building in the round. She led me to an inconspicuous door on the ground floor, her key ring had a large brass disc on it with the word ORGAN engraved into it.

The door was opened and I was invited in to the “Bellows Room” of the Grand Organ built over 130 years ago by Henry Willis. I was honoured to walk into the internal structure of this auspicious instrument. Intricate steep laddering led me into hard to reach corners of the organ’s 9990 pipe’s, a seemingly endless and sprawling array of cylinders of metal and wood. The space was hard to fathom and with no sense of true perspective I began to feel like I was in an Escher drawing.

I was ecstatic over the blankets of dust that were to be found under the bellows and near the ends of pipes. My favourite dust was clinging to the back of the organs elaborate grills: delicate fibrous tentacles that glimmered in the stage lighting coming from the auditorium.

Jackie recollected an alleged piece of organ history as I delicately picked at this dust. Apparently a Suffragette had sneaked into the bellows room and installed herself in one of the pipes of the organ the night before an important political gathering in the hall. The next day she proceeded to disrupt the meeting by wailing her heart out through the pipe, transmitting dark moans in to the auditorium.

As I collected dust Jackie told me more about her role at the Hall, as the archivist she is cataloguing over 20,000 show programmes that have been made since the Hall opened in 1871. As well as this she has been collecting ghost stories of the R.A.H: accounts from staff of sightings in and around the building. Apparently when the organ was being refurbished in the 1940’s builders who had taken out the original staircase had seen an apparition walking up and down where the stairs had once been. The figure was wearing a skull cap and was thought to be a disgruntled Henry Willis, upset at his Grand Organ being disturbed.

As we climbed the layers of the organ, dust dispersed and appeared to get thinner as we reached its upper most echelons.

Father Henry Willis

200 Samples of Dust collected!

On 15th December I reached my goal of collecting the first 200 samples of dust, from institutions, houses and business across London and beyond. These samples are the first to be transformed into bricks, which I will be making at HG Matthew’s in January. This is the beginning of the stack of 500 bricks that will grow over the course of the exhibition “DIRT” at the Wellcome Collection 24th March - 31st August 2011.

There is still opportunity for you to donate your dust to the project: I need to collect another 200 samples by March, envelopes are available from the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Rd London NW1 2BE and UP Projects, contact donateyourdust@upprojects.com for your envelope with instructions.

Read on to see my dust collection diary highlights.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

H.G Matthew’s and Son

Naomi (ceramics consultant on the project) sent me a link to H.G Matthew’s and Son who have been making traditional hand made bricks for over 87 years. I watched a short film explaining the brick making process and was so impressed by their website I sent them an email to see if I could make my 500 bricks at their brickyard in Buckinghamshire under the tutelage of their expert brick throwers.

The following day I got a phone call from Jim, the youngest of the three brothers now running the family company. I spoke to him for a short time but immediately realised his passion for bricks and his understanding of the project. He told me that the KLF who burnt a million pounds in 1994 had approached him to turn the ashes of their million pounds in to a brick. Jim excitedly told me that their brick had turned out a beautiful golden colour, mainly because of the ingredient of the ash. Jim was so pleased with the colour of the brick he thought he might be able to get ash from the Royal Mint and make a series of special edition golden bricks. Sadly the Royal Mint declined his proposition. Jim asked me if I might approach the Royal Mint again but this time in the context of my project. I really like the idea so will give it a go, it compliments very well the bricks symbolising the development of capitalism in the city and the projects initial inspiration, the commercialisation of waste.

Later that week I met Jim at the brickyard and he gave me a guided tour. It was fantastic, I got to meet some of his team, who I watched making four brick at a time in a very heavy looking mould. Jim reassured me I wouldn’t be making my bricks with this mould but would be working in the specials room, which was a cosy little space at the other side of the yard. Hanging from the wooden rafters of the barn were lots of individual moulds, a myriad of shapes and sizes, curved bricks, bevelled bricks, brickettes, any and every sort of brick that you can imagine. This was certainly a special’s room. Jim pointed to a corner and said that I could sit there for a month making my bricks if I needed to, although one of his boys could throw 500 bricks in 2 or 3 days. But my bricks are going to be slightly more complicated as I need to mix in peoples dust to each brick, number them and make sure nothing gets mixed up so later when they are leathery hard I can imprint them with each persons initials.

I also encountered my first frog in this specials room. The frog in brick-makers terms is the indention found on the top of most bricks, allowing the brick to take up the mortar more effectively. It is often imprinted with the brick-makers company name. They are usually made from wood and are rectangular with bevelled edges and the raised initials or name on the top surface. I will be making a frog for my bricks that read’s “Laid to Rest”.

One of Jim’s expert throwers showed me how a brick was made, it seemed a bit like cooking, there was a certain kind of alchemy to the whole process perhaps because he performed the act so effortlessly and quickly before my eyes. The soft clay is rolled in sand, the mould is dusted with sand (a bit like dusting a cake tin with flour, to aid the release). Then the clay is thrown in to the mould with great precision, the mould is thrown down onto the bench, a cheese wire is run along the top of the mould to remove excess clay and then the brick is turned out on to a perforated metal tray for drying. Magic!

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Cathedral to Waste

Crossness Pumping Station is not generally open to the public, but there are occasions every year when it does open its gates to visitors. Enthusiasts and the uninitiated come for miles to take a peak at restoration work in progress, and see the Prince Consort, one of the four steam powered pumps, in action. It has taken a team of retired engineers and enthusiasts about 10 years to restore the Prince, and for open days like this, visitors are enthralled by its spectacle of Victorian engineering prowess. Every 30 minutes the Prince chugs into action, it’s actually surprisingly quiet for a pump producing about 125 h.p enabling it to pump over six tons of sewage at each stroke. Whilst the Prince sputters and gurgle’s subtly in the background visitors in hard hats look around in ore at the beauty of Charles Driver’s incredibly ornate caste-ironwork. Some parts have been restored to their former glory, singing out in bright red, yellow, gold and green: these elaborate decorative features give Crossness its nick name “The Cathedral on the Marshes”.

Crossness is located at Thamesmead near Woolwich and as we approached the corporate gates of Thames Water, (the modern day treatment works sits close to the original Crossness Pumping Station) the wind was blowing the right way to give us an olfactory reminder of where we were.

As we drove about 300 meters along a small bumpy road we passed the modern treatment works, directed by a couple of well placed, hi-vi clad, volunteers en-route we were eventually confronted by Crossness. This majestic yet slightly worn building remains as a monument to Joseph Bazelgette’s civil engineering masterpiece: London’s Sewage System. Opened in 1865 this pumping station contributed to the health of Londoners as it pumped sewage efficiently out of the city whilst also improving drinking water. Bazalgette was chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works charged with the duty of ridding London of the foul stink of 1858. Before Bazalgette’s sewage system the Thames had operated as an open sewer, being filled with the contents of London’s WC’s and cesspit’s. There was only one further out break of cholera after the pumping stations and sewage system were put in to action.

Crossness has a pseudo religious quality, it represents purification of the city and its people. There is a reverence built into the architecture of the building and it is this quality that I am particularly drawn to. Volunteers currently working on restoring Victoria (one of the other four steam pumps at Crossness) are collecting her dust and dirt for “LAID TO REST”. In the context of this project Crossness dust has been elevated into “Holy Dust” which in turn will produce “Holy Bricks”.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The History of Shit

“Queen Victoria may well have been a dry-fart; but this is not why Victorian London boasted the most perfect urinals and celebrated the burial of excrement in exquisite latrines. One is more likely to find the answer in the correspondence of Prince Albert, and in the particular attention he paid to human strecus. Not unlike others at the helm of Empires, he deemed it a fertilizer unmatched in quality and price, and one eminently worthy of the highest esteem- an esteem bordering on religious contemplation.” Pg 61, The History of Shit, Dominique Laporte

I was recently commissioned to produce an artwork for the Wellcome Collection’s forthcoming show “Dirt” which opens 24th March 2011. On being approached to propose something for the commission I was instantly reminded of a book I encountered about 6 years ago by Dominique Laporte called “ History of Shit”. Laporte has a unique and exhilarating style that meanders between, history, philosophy, linguistics and theory. He creates a radical text suggesting the importance of human waste in forming the organisation of cities and the development of capitalism. He highlights that as much as we wish to ignore dirt we are intrinsically linked to it emphasising the currency and value it equates to within our society.

So my focus became the idea of profit developed out of waste and in particular the commercialisation of waste in Victorian London, from the dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road to the civil engineering achievements of Joseph Bazelgette’s Sewage System.

The dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road was a mile high by a mile wide and became a source of great fortune for many Victorian Londoners. It was immortalised in Charles Dicken’s “Our Mutual Friend’s” in which one of the main characters “Mr.Boffin” nicknamed “The Golden Dustman” had gained his wealth from the dust heap. As I researched the heap I discovered that it wasn’t just individuals that profited from the heap but many industries had been born out of it. The industry I was particularly excited by was London Brick-making; dust, ash and cinders were taken from the heap and mixed with mud from nearby brickfields to produce the humble brick

I had recently completed a project called “Decosa, Tradition, Stockholm Keifer/pin” which focused on a DIY material that I had discovered in the Czech Republic. Decosa is a thin polystyrene sheeting printed with a fake wood effect. I am very interested in the ritual of DIY as a new form of religion in contemporary society so building blocks were fresh in my mind. The brick seemed very appealing as a rudimentary building material that forms the basis of our civilisation yet is pretty much overlooked and taken for granted.

As I read on about the history of bricks I saw a relationship to the ideas I had read about in Laporte, the value to be found in rubbish and shit was immense and was represented by the brick. I was interested in the bricks importance in building up our city as well as their importance in the development of Bazelgette’s incredible sewage system which pumped the Great Stink of 1858 out of the city centre. His system involved 181 miles of tunnelling, and one of the four major pumping stations in Bazalgette’s scheme was Crossness. This iconic building nicknamed “The Cathedral on the Marshses” bears testimony to Victorian opulence and the genius of the industrial revolution. It is a site of historical importance in relation to “Laid to Rest” and will play a pivotal role in the development of this project.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Your Dust Transformed into a Brick

“Laid to Rest” will transform dust collected from houses, businesses and institutions into a time capsule of 500 commemorative bricks. Inspired by the commercialization of waste in Victorian London from the dust heaps of Gray’s Inn Rd to the engineering achievements of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system. The dust heap was a monument to the invisible and provided a major source of income. One of the industries to be born out of the heaps was London brick making: ash, cinders and rubbish from the heaps were mixed with the mud of nearby brick fields to produce the humble brick.

Each brick made as part of “Laid to Rest” will contain the specific dust of its contributor and will be imprinted with information cataloguing its transformation from the barely visible to the palpable. A growing stack of bricks will be exhibited as part of “Dirt” at the Wellcome Collection 24th March – 31st August 2011. The project will culminate in a horse drawn procession and burial of the bricks.