Artist Residencies: The Special Library

Artist Residencies

Over the past few months, Unbound has investigated artist residency programs in academic libraries, public libraries, and archives. Today we’ll be capping off this series with a visit to the world of special libraries.

G39 is an artist run non-profit located in Cardiff, Wales. They host a gallery space and provide resources and services for local artists through their Wales Artist Resource Programme, also known as Warp. Warp has an on-site library that collects books, periodicals, and other materials that can be of use to their artist patrons. The library also functions as a quiet workspace and a setting for events and workshops.

The Warp Library. Photo by Megan Winstone, 2015.

After a major move allowed g39 to establish a dedicated space for their library, they decided to use it as a platform for a new artist-in-residence program. This program would “develop the library as a resource and enliven its use.” G39 would provide the artist with a working space, full access to the library’s resources, an exhibition space, and the guidance and support of the staff. In return, the artist would create works and events that highlight the collection, generate library activity, and promote the use of its resources. G39 does not employ a librarian, but does recruit volunteers to assist with cataloging, labeling, and shelving the collection. Their library artist residents are able to direct higher-level operations and initiatives for the library that would be outside the scope of regular volunteer work.

G39’s residencies are twenty days long, with a £1000 stipend provided. The artists are given leeway to come up with their own initiatives and spend their time in the ways they feel are most productive, while staff provides feedback and assistance. At the end of the residency, the artist presents the outcomes of their projects. Past artists in residence have presented work that helps the library to “see the shelf content in new ways,” and “examine how it works with and presents its collection.”

Their first library resident, Laura Jane Reeves, collaborated with g39’s writer-in-residence at the time, poet Rhian Edwards. Together they hosted a series of talks and seminars related to themes like art writing and self-publishing. Their residencies culminated with an exhibition called There Will Be Words, which “took the library as its locus by inviting artists whose practices engage with aspects of publishing, writing and archives.” Reeves’ most significant creation from her residency was an artist book titled How to Start a Collection, inspired by items in the Warp Library collection and including two poems by Rhian Edwards.

For their second residency a year later, they brought on local Cardiff artist Louise Hobson. She made the central theme of her residency the idea of trade routes:

Libraries universally exist as spaces for exchange between human beings; most obviously between the reader and the writer/artist. As this project is an exploration of the idea of exchange, the Warp library is the perfect space to research, explore and initiate these ideas. (Louise Hobson)

Photo by g39
The new section for donated books. Photo by Louise Hobson

As part of this exploration, she put out a call for publications, requesting donations to the library’s collection from around the world. Donations had to be of some value to the donor, connected to a known place in some way, and include an enclosed note with the donor’s reason for sending it. All donated publications were added to a new, dedicated section in the library, “a people’s library, within a library.” Selected donations were shared online, and then added to the library’s permanent collection.

Hobson also started a series of weekly events she called the Breakfast Club. On Saturday mornings, Warp would open their doors to the public for a breakfast. This allowed staff, artists, and other visitors the opportunity to meet, catch up, and have informal conversations. As Hobson put it, “these types of conversations are usually snatched at an opening or an event and often don’t have the space or time to go beyond mere formalities. Ideas are being discussed, projects are being shared and plans are being made.” These events were a great success, and Warp is still hosting them today:

During her residency, Hobson organized an art walk, tracing the path of Cardiff’s town wall and comparing its current state to a 1610 map depicting it in its prime. The event inspired her publication for g39, The Wall, a reader. The book reflects on the wall’s place in history, and the gulf between Cardiff as it existed then and as it is now.

The map of the Wall
John Speed’s 1610 map of the Cardiff Town Wall

G39’s third and most recent resident, Helen Clifford, came on board in January 2015. Her residency focused primarily on bringing a new cataloging methodology to the Warp library. She’d had prior experience working as a library assistant at the Cardiff School of Art & Design, and she used the knowledge she’d developed there to really delve into the organization of the Warp library’s collection. G39’s announcement of her appointment put it well:

For her residency in the Warp library Helen Clifford is examining new and alternative ways of classifying books. The standard classification systems (Dewey, Library of Congress Classification and The Dublin Core) are historical, political and entrenched. With reference to these systems, Helen will identify a personal perspective within their confines. She will explore book definition and interconnections within the Warp library, generating an individual set of procedures that define and examining links of themes, approaches, concepts, places and people. (Warp Bulletin 01/2015)

As part of her project “Threads and Strands,” Clifford held participatory readings and discussion groups, allowing the community to provide ideas and feedback on how the library’s collection could be both catalogued and weeded to best serve them. She also organized research trips to other Cardiff-based libraries and archives to explore their methods of classification.

After her residency ended, Clifford stayed on as a volunteer, continuing her project of organizing the Warp library. During this phase of the project, she held an event called “Take all the Books Out,” during which the library’s collection was taken off the shelves and into g39’s gallery space, where visitors could discuss and decide which categories they belonged in. In a library serving the unique, tightly-focused demographic of local artists, she worked with them to develop uniquely suited methodology. She has had a major impact on the ways that the library thinks about and works with its collection.

G39 is currently preparing for their fourth library residency. They recently put out a call for applications that listed the following goals they’d like their next resident to pursue:

-Make the Library more visible to visitors to the gallery and Warp users.

-Building a relationship between the specialist interior world of the Library and the outside world.

– Making use of the Library as a platform for events and activity.

Their next residency begins in January 2016 and will run through to March. To keep track of their progress and the work that will result, check out Warp’s website!


This marks the end of Unbound‘s series on Artist Residencies in Libraries and Archives. Stay tuned for our next exploration of new and developing phenomena in the library world!


(Post by Derek Murphy)

Artist Residencies: The Archives

So far, Unbound’s InfoFuture-inspired series on library-based artist residency programs has looked at academic libraries and public libraries. Today, we’ll be considering a less common venue for such programs, the archives. When a public archives in Portland, Oregon brought artists in to interact with their collections, they discovered just how effective an artist-archives partnership can be.

Kaia Sand and Garrick Imatani, artists in residence
Kaia Sand and Garrick Imatani, artists in residence

The city of Portland’s main budgetary allowance for public art comes from their Percent for Art program, which dictates that 2% of most publicly funded construction projects must be spent on public art. When the City of Portland Archives & Record Center (PARC) moved to a new location on the Portland State University campus in 2010,they collaborated with Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) to dedicate a part of their Percent for Art allowance to the creation of an artist in residence program.

In 2013, PARC began their first artist residency, welcoming visual artist Garrick Imatani and poet Kaia Sand. “Imatani and Sand, who share a connection in their approaches to documentary research–based work, their interest in politics and history, and their long histories of working in archives as part of their creative processes, applied for the residency as collaborators.” (Carbone, 2015, p. 30)

Watcher Files cards
A box of surveillance records from The Watcher Files

The pair were fascinated by one of PARC’s most unusual collections: The Watcher Files. From the 1960’s through the 1980’s the Portland Police Bureau conducted extensive surveillance on non-criminal civic and activist groups. Once a 1981 law made such practices illegal, the police’s records of it were ordered to be liquidated. One of the detectives involved in conducting the surveillance stole 36 boxes of the records and hid them away before they could be destroyed. Decades later, an anonymous source donated them to the archives, where they were accessioned.

The Watcher Files include surveillance of 576 organizations, including anti-nuclear activists, feminist groups, a voter registration project, and even a bicycle repair collective. These documents are immensely relevant to today’s concerns about privacy, unchecked surveillance, and police militarization. Inspired, the artists set to work translating the aesthetics and ethical implications of the records into art. The art they produced lent the records an immediacy and emotional resonance that the public does not often see in a civic archive’s collections.

The poem "She had her own reason for participating"
The poem “She had her own reason for participating”

Sand’s poem She had her own reason for participating was a reaction to the disturbing number of surveillance documents on feminist activists she found in the collection. The poem took the form of a card catalogue drawer, with each line imprinted onto a copper card. The drawer was built into a gallery plinth fashioned by Imatani to resemble a cardboard archival storage box, geometrically warped. Every line of the poem is a statement quoted from the records beginning with the word “She”. In the poet’s words, “This poem forms a small populace of women—women who organized dissent; women who labored; women who suffered violence and imprisonment; women engaged in struggles during my girlhood years when I learned to be proud of a legacy of feminism, unaware of just how threatening those with power found feminism.”

Imatani’s plinth fashioned in the style of an archival cardboard box crossed with a card catalog drawer.

She had her own reason for participating was not the residency’s only piece to use archival aesthetics in its presentation. At their gallery showings, the artists employed archival materials to present their art. Imatani constructed several pieces of furniture modeled after what they’d seen at PARC, including desks etched with Sand’s poetry, housing drawers containing framed works. Another of Sand’s poems incorporated redacted lines, to recall the redacted sections of the surveillance files. By fashioning their art after the aesthetics of the archives, the artists invited gallery visitors to “experience and interact with the archive, public art, and Portland history” (Carbone, 2015, p. 45). In this way, the shows familiarized gallery visitors with the archives, its holdings, and its methodology.

A surveillance photo of Lloyd Marbet, from The Watcher Files
A surveillance photo of Lloyd Marbet, from The Watcher Files

The residency at PARC was also noteworthy for radically dissolving the boundary between an archival record and its subject. As they familiarized themselves with the Watcher Files, Sand and Imatani began reaching out to locals who had appeared in the surveillance records decades ago. They soon initiated a working relationship with a former anti-nuclear power activist named Lloyd Marbet. Even though his methods of protest were legal and non-violent, he appeared several times in the Watcher Files. The artists showed Marbet the surveillance records about him, and allowed him the chance to respond, over forty years later. His remarks on the documents were screenprinted onto sheer paper, and placed over the originals, marking them up with his annotations.

In one 1972 document, the police listed the contents of Marbet’s truck, and noted that it contained empty wine bottles, gas cans, and rags, “obviously components of fire bombs.” In his response, pictured below, he explained that the gas was extra fuel for long trips into the woods, the wine bottles were left over from those trips, and the rags were there to help him fix the truck when it broke down. “I had no idea they cooked that stuff up,” he said, “It was not my nature, not where I was coming from”

Lloyd Marbet’s annotations to a surveillance document about him.

It is vanishingly rare that an archival document’s subject has a chance to respond to it so directly. Marbet’s mark-ups overcame an extreme power imbalance. He was watched against his will by one state institution (the police), and their unchecked, unflattering observations were then placed into another state institution (the archives) to persist as historical record. Marbet had no input into this process, and for much of the time was purposefully kept unaware of it. By allowing him the chance to respond, PARC and its resident artists shifted this power dynamic in a more fair direction. The marked-up document is not just good art, it’s also a strong meditation on archival ethics, and an example of a potential solution to an ethically dubious situation.

Sand and Imatani created several other excellent works during their PARC residency, including some fascinating poetry performances, a beautiful letterpress printed book, and a handmade bookshelf containing book recommendations by local activists. Their residency ended in February of 2015. I reached out to Diana Banning, Portland’s City Archivist, and she was very positive about the experience: “The first residency with Sand and Imatani was wildly successful, and not just because of the fabulous art and poetry created. They served as excellent ambassadors for our archives, and were able to generate interest and energy within the artist, activist, and archival community.”

PARC has plans to bring in a second artist residency. They currently expect it to begin in January 2016 and run for twelve months. Depending on future funding, they expect to host at least two and potentially up to four more residencies in the future. It will be exciting to see where they take this innovative program!



(Post by Derek Murphy)

Artist Residencies: The Public Library

In this latest edition of Unbound’s InfoFuture-inspired series on library-based artist residencies, we’ll be taking a look at a successful example of an artist-in-residence program at an innovative public library system.

MPL_logoIn 2013, the Madison Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin launched the Bubbler, a maker-focused program active in all branch locations and in various outreach locations. Their vision for the Bubbler is to foster creativity in their community through activities, demonstrations, and workshops focused on art, design, and technology.

bubbler_logoIn September of that year, the Bubbler launched an artist-in-residence program. Their residencies are both brief and frequent. Each is one to three months long, and as soon as one residency ends, the next begins. The Bubbler’s artist residencies are very successful at engaging with the library’s surrounding community. Their artists have taken quite varied approaches that illustrate different types of impact a resident artist can make.

The Bubbler’s artists are encouraged to pursue work that is accessible to the whole community. A public library’s demographic pool is about as broad as it gets, so this can prove challenging. In the Dream Collectors’ residency, they accomplished it by engaging with a subject that everyone can relate to: sleeping and dreaming. During all open library hours, the Bubbler operated a space where children and adults could create art based on recent dreams they’ve had, and display them in the space. This very wide range of hours made it easier to reach patrons on all sorts of schedules. The Dream Collectors also undertook several special events for patrons, including a late night cocktail party in the library and a two-hour workshop on Surrealist games.

dream collectors
The Dream Collectors. Photo via Madison Public Library.

Other residencies have engaged with community-specific subject matter. The Private Public collective’s residency, titled Our Madison, “invite[s] residents to participate in visualizing and recording our current lived experiences (both positive and negative) within our city to foster conversations about the issues facing our community.” The results included a wall of sticky notes with community members’ desires for the future of the city, as well as a map of the city that patrons marked at places they’ve had important experiences. At the end of the residency the artists published a book of the results, titled People’s Atlas: Our Madison. The collective’s focus on the lives and surroundings of the library’s patrons helped them connect and create meaningful collaborative art.

Our Madison. Photo via Madison Public Library.

Victor Castro’s residency was noteworthy for his work with marginalized community members and for his ecologically conscious use of the community’s recycled materials. One initiative from his residency, the social sculpture project ARTinside: filling spaces took place at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. He teamed up with the teens residing there to create sculptures out of recycled materials like clothespins and milk cartons. They then installed the sculptures in the detention’s common spaces. During these sessions, everyone wore special masks they’d assembled and used nicknames they’d chosen for themselves. The project gave the participants space to play with their identity and agency to decorate the parts of the center they spent the most time in. During a radio appearance discussing the project, Castro summed up his goals: “We are filling the spaces of the facility but also, why not, we are trying to fill up spaces inside them, inside the souls and the minds of these kids.” In the end, the project generated a great deal of enthusiasm from both the teen participants and the detention center’s staff.

ARTinside. Photo via Madison Public Library.

An artist in residence at a public library faces the challenge of engaging a patron base that is extremely broad and diverse. Through their attention to relevant and accessible subject matter, community engagement, and thoughtful connections with marginalized groups, the Bubbler’s artists have provided a great model for other public libraries looking to initiate similar programs.

The Bubbler’s rapid success brought the library new funding opportunities. In 2014, the Madison Public Library, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received a two-year National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help support the Bubbler and its many initiatives, including their artist-in-residence program.

For more information on The Bubbler’s artist-in-residence program and a list of artists who’ve participated, check out their website!

(Post by Derek Murphy)

Artist Residencies: The Academic Library

In January of this year, Simmons College hosted an IMLS-sponsored conference called “Envisioning Our Information Future and How to Educate for it.” There, notable librarians and information professionals conversed about future paths for the field. One popular subject of discussion was the potential for artist residencies to become more common in information institutions. Over the next several weeks, Unbound will be investigating case studies of successful artist residencies across various types of libraries and archives. Today, we’ll be taking a look at a successful residency program at a forward-thinking academic library.

The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) hosts a yearly artist residency they call the Artist-In-Residence Program. During a time of major transition for the library, they hoped that bringing artists into their space would assist them in “injecting playfulness, art, and culture into all aspects of the Library’s operations” and “ensur[ing] the ongoing relevance and development of a dynamic library into the future.”
The LRS in action. Photo via UTS Library.

The creation of the residency program was precipitated by a major operational shift for the library. In 2012, the UTS Library installed an automated storage and retrieval system (called the Library Retrieval System, or, LRS) underneath its library. In order to ease space constraints, books were transferred from the library stacks to efficiently packed metal bins stored in an underground facility. Upon a patron’s request, a robotic system retrieved the books from storage.

This system was a great success, but it raised concerns about discoverability. Though the most frequently used parts of the collection were still shelved in open stacks, it was suddenly much harder for patrons to stumble upon books they didn’t know they were looking for. In response, the UTS Library convened an advisory panel of academics and art curators to select an artist who could bring his unique skills and design sense to bear on the problem. Their choice? Visual Communication Design specialist Chris Gaul.

The Library Spectrogram. Photo by Chris Gaul

Gaul, their first resident artist, created a set of art installations themed around discoverability. The Library Frequency Tuner, a modified radio tuner, allowed patrons to use a dial to scroll through the full spectrum of Dewey numbers and listen to associated audio excerpts of books from the collection. The Call Number Telephone allowed patrons to dial a Dewey number and hear a reading from a random book associated with that number. The Library Spectrogram beautifully visualized the collection as a colorful, easy to read diagram. The Spectrogram originally took the form of an educational wall chart. After it was exhibited, the library then integrated it into their online catalog search as an interactive tool for discovery. This tool, the Collection Ribbon, is still in use today. Gaul’s residency culminated in an exhibition at the on-campus DAB LAB Research Gallery.

Gaul’s residency provides an excellent example of the benefits an artist residency program can have for an academic library. The residency resulted in a successful gallery exhibition, new opportunities for patrons to engage with the library’s organizational systems, and elegant, concrete operational improvements to those systems.

Following the success of Gaul’s residency, the library has continued to host yearly residencies to this day. Successive residents have created dynamic installations, developed audio poetry inspired by the collection, and investigated the concept of the ‘book’ in the digital age.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll discuss the Madison Public Library’s innovative approach to public library artist residencies!

And below, please enjoy these videos of some of Chris Gaul’s work from his UTS residency.

(Post by Derek Murphy)