Encyclopaedia Ball – an interview with myself.

This is about a project I’m working on, called Encyclopaedia Ball. The project is to turn a set of 1950’s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid ball of papier mache. I thought I’d write this blog in the form of an interview with myself.

Q. How did you start on this project?

A. The ball form came first. My wife was experimenting with pulped egg cartons as a sculpting material and ended up making a series of small paper pulp balls, about the size of golf balls. I liked them. They reminded me of David Nash’s Nine Cracked Balls. I have a large stash of academic journals I originally got for making papier mache with, so I tried pulping the paper from one of them. I found it didn’t pulp well, but I started layering the pages over a core of pulp, with wall paper paste. I got the idea of continuing until I’d used the entire journal. It was a rather thick conference proceedings volume published by the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and this became the first of my ball pieces, ACM Ball. After that I made a ball out of a copy of the Bible. I kind of had a vision of a really huge paper ball, like a boulder, so using the encyclopaedias suggested itself.

Q. I understand that the encyclopaedias are a family heirloom. 

A. They were bought in the 1950s by my grandfather for my father. My grandfather was worried that my father wasn’t doing well academically, and hoped the encyclopaedias would help. Naturally, my father never read them, and nor did my grandfather, who had them in his house until his death. Then my parents had them in their house for a few years and never read them. Then I got them and put them in my attic. And didn’t read them. In the 1950s, a set of encyclopaedias was the equivalent of the internet, it was where you went to answer random questions. A set of encyclopaedias can also take you on rabbit trails and open up new things to you. But it’s easy to leave them unopened on the shelf. There’s something closed, or a bit forbidding about them. The irony is that, if I’d had them as a child, I would have read them. I loved the Encyclopaedia Britannicas at school.

Q. What does your father think of you turning them into a ball?

A. He doesn’t know. He would probably think it was stupid.

Q. How do you conceptualise the project? I mean, you’re taking all of this knowledge and sort of locking it shut. Is it a comment on information overload, the burden of knowledge…?

A. I haven’t tended to conceptualise it much, but I guess there are a number of strands. My understanding of the piece has developed through the act of making it. It’s true that I’m locking information up and it could be seen as disrespectful of knowledge – like screwing it up into a big ball. There’s something precious or even sacred about the form of the book and a corresponding sense of sacrilege about destroying them. On the other hand, those encyclopaedias were locked shut for decades and I will be the only person who will ever see every single page. In a sense, I’m also opening them up. It has been heartbreaking at times, to see some of the beautiful images in there – hand drawn images and photographs – just to hide them again under layers. I started taking photos of the ball as it progressed, particularly of images and things I found interesting. That set of images is part of the work, a companion to it.

Q. There’s something performative about it, then?

A. Yes, I think so. I’m finding that more so. It’s quite a physical process. At one point, I thought it would make a nice evening project for when I’m too tired to do other work, but it’s actually hard work. It’s reached the point where I have to stand up to do it and there’s a certain choreography of how I need to move it around as I work on it. And of course, I’m seeing all of these images and reading snatches of text. I’m living through all that knowledge. It’s bringing different things into my mind as I work, changing me. 

Another touchstone for this project has been Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone. This was a ball of plasticine, weighing the same as the artist, which took on the form of the environment as it was rolled and moved about. He rolled it to the gallery and it picked up imprints of grates on the street etc. My ball has a similar set of constraints – if I ever finish it, the size will be determined by the encyclopaedias – and it’s something that will continue to evolve over time. Orozco’s ball changes every time it gets handled and mine will take years, probably, to complete. I could see it being exhibited and then continued to be worked on. 

I also think a lot about another of David Nash’s pieces, Wooden Boulder. Again a large ball, much bigger than mine, made of wood. It got trapped in a stream when the artist was trying to move it, and spent years being moved by the force of water down the stream, to the river and out into the sea. There’s something about the form of a rough sphere that appeals to me.

Q. How far into the project are you? You say you might not even finish it?

A. I’m up to volume 6 and I think the set has 24 volumes. So I’m about a fifth the way through. But I’ve been working on it for two years. Not constantly of course. It’s pretty boring work and I don’t know if I’ll complete it. I might just stop. It might get too big to fit through the door. I might drop it on my foot and decide enough’s enough!

Q. How big do you think it will get? Bigger than a doorway?

A. I don’t know. Probably not that big. The bigger it gets, the slower it grows, because the surface area to cover gets bigger all the time.

Q. Describe the process of making it.

A. It’s not complicated. I use wallpaper paste, like you do when you do papier mache at school. I just layer on page after page. For some reason, it tends towards being a rounded cube, rather than a sphere. I don’t know why that is – something to do with how the paper overlaps. I’ve tried various strategies to avoid it, but it doesn’t work. A mathematician could probably tell me the optimum way of doing it. I end up tearing the paper into smaller pieces in order to ‘correct’ the shape – I’m not sure if that is cheating or not, but I make the rules! I have a theory that it’ll become less of a problem the bigger it gets, because each page will cover a smaller proportion of the surface. When it was small, each page completely covered the ball. If it is a problem. I don’t know!

Q. There’s something quite aggressive about it, as an object. It’s like a wrecking ball!

A. It is! It’s fallen off the table with a crash before and it’s a wonder it didn’t break the floor. I suppose you could say it’s quite masculine, if you want. It’s quite a perverse thing to do to a book. I like heavy, solid compact things. It’s like a bomb. A knowledge bomb! It’s got all this trapped knowledge buzzing away like nuclear energy. I was also responding to the work of Jukhee Kwon, who’s work I saw in the 2018 Aesthetica Prize in York. Her work with books is very light and the books are quite literally opened up as she cuts into the pages and creates these cascades. I wanted to take the opposite path. Jukhee Kwon’s work seems to turn knowledge into spirit, whereas my balls turn it into matter. 

Q. Is there also something about knowledge being a burden, or obsolete knowledge?

A. Certainly, there’s something around obsolescence. Printed encyclopaedias are obsolete things. Knowledge becomes dated – these encyclopaedias are from the 1950s and a lot of the knowledge in them will have been superseded. And so with our knowledge today. And with the internet or whatever. I worked in a bookshop for a while, and one of the things I learned was that old sets of encyclopaedias don’t have financial value. Having lots of books can be oppressive. In the Bible it says about there being no end to the making of books and with much knowledge comes much misery. Knowledge ends up forming archaeological strata and it’s only the surface you see.

Q. I believe you have a party each time you reach a new letter?

A. Yes! I started doing that. Each party involves food and drink beginning with the new letter. I’ve only done it twice, as I’m still in ‘C’ and I didn’t do ‘A’. They haven’t involved many people – just my family – but maybe I should make them into more of a thing. I like the idea of art having a social aspect. Although I’m not particularly social…!

Q. What will you have when you get to ‘X’?

A. My head examined, probably.

B for Ballistics.