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.

Japanese block printing (my version)

Here are some experiments I did with a bastardised version of Japanese woodblock printing. Instead of using oil based ink, this technique uses water-based drawing ink and starch paste. The starch paste slows the drying of the ink and allows it to be printed. This was just a dipping of the toe in the water, but I might do some more. There are some great videos on YouTube of Japanese masters doing this properly; I’m just seeing if I can use it in my own way.

In the two pictures above, you can see the tools I used. In the cup is a mixture of acrylic drawing ink and starch paste (I used Japanese Jin Shofu paste, which I normally use as a paper glue). I tried various brushes, including a watercolour wash brush and a house painting brush, but I found that a large makeup brush worked best. You brush the ink on. You don’t need very much, but it’s best if it’s even. In the other picture, you can see the results. Top left: I didn’t wet the paper. Top right: paper too wet and too much ink/starch. Bottom left: still too much ink/starch and paper possibly still too wet – the block took a lot of the paper surface with it. Bottom right: better, but it still took some of the paper surface off. Might be bad paper (it was cheap paper). I printed them with a Floplast 110mm press (= a piece of 110mm soil pipe filled with concrete).

Photos of the Erskine Bridge

I’ve been sifting through some photos I took back in 1996 when I was at Glasgow School of Art. They came out of a project I was doing related to the Antonine Wall, the Roman construction which spanned the Forth-Clyde isthmus. I made a series of cycle trips to locations along the wall. The sequence of photos I’m presenting here are of the Erskine Bridge, which crosses the Clyde near the western end of the Antonine Wall, within sight of the fort at Old Kilpatrick. Suspension bridges have been another of my obsessions. There is somehow a connection between the miraculously thin concrete span of the bridge and the Antonine Wall, which was also a structure extruded beyond what one would think possible.

 

Improving the studio with reclaimed materials (= how not to spend any money)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Someone recently gave me some floorboards they ripped out of their house and it prompted me to make some new shelves for my studio. It’s quite tricky to reuse tongue and groove floorboards, because they split like mad when you wrench them up, so I wasn’t sure enough of it would be usable. But it was. I spent a very happy Sunday afternoon pulling nails out of them, then used the best bits to make my shelves. I’ve been watching Adam Savage’s Tested Youtube channel, which has lots of ideas for workshop storage. He has this concept of ‘first order retrievability’ which means that any tool should be retrievable easily without having to move something else. Drawers are places where things go to die. This inspired my paintbrush/pencil/tool rack. I also made an organiser cabinet using a Proplex floor protection sheet I had and offcuts of ply and MDF. The Proplex attracts dust by static electricity, which is annoying, and wasn’t as rigid as I’d hoped, meaning I had to reinforce the drawers with cardboard. The cabinet was marginal from this point of view: all the materials were free, but it took a long time to make – probably longer than I should have spent on it. The ply and MDF scraps I used had multiple lives: they came from a previous projects of mine as well as their original uses. I like it when materials can be reused multiple times. All this work inspired my son: he made a battleship out of the wood scraps and burnt himself with the glue gun while doing it, thus initiating himself into the ranks of makers

Hobstone

Untitled drawing, Matthew Herring, 1999.
Untitled drawing, Matthew Herring, 1999. (© Matthew Herring)

To escape, over Christmas, I went out for a walk around the suburbs near my home in York, one afternoon. I took Iain Sinclair as an imaginary companion, or rather, he brought himself along, as I’d been reading his London Overground, a book about a walk Sinclair took around the route of the London overground railway with the filmmaker Andrew Kötting. The presence of Sinclair turned a stroll into a minor odyssey. I tried to weave into my walk some sensitivity to the psychological lie of the land and to deliberately cut across my usual routes. I started on Beckfield Lane: a mile long and dead straight. Someone once told me it was bombed by a Zeppelin during the First World War, because the Germans thought it was an airstrip. Most of the houses were built after then, so it’s part of the twentieth century semi-detached sprawl. The school I went to (recently demolished) was at one end and I used to think of the whole as a huge neurone, with the school as the cell body and the road as the axon extending to where I then lived at the other end. Beckfield Lane takes its name from one of the original open fields of Acomb, before enclosure. It runs along a ridge from which you can look downhill towards York Minster and the city centre. It’s a road for going along rather than across, so my first attempt at escaping the spell of Acomb (or entering into it) was to cut down through a snicket to Jute Road, heading down into the valley of the eponymous beck, now hidden. All the streets in the ex-council-estate area on the Western slope above the Beckfield beck are named after the city’s connection to the Vikings and the Battle of Stamford Bridge (there’s a Tostig Avenue). 

I headed towards a small copse called Fishponds Wood, a numinous place where the Beckfield beck seeps to the surface. The fishponds are gone, but what remains is a crescent of dense marshy woodland, neglected by all but the obligatory band of ‘friends of’ and hidden behind a stockade of council houses with tiny gardens. A significant local road is called Carr Lane and I imagine Fishponds Wood as a relic, or descendent, of that primordial carr, as if every neighbourhood needs its weep hole where things hidden can come to the surface.  The Fisher King’s wound kept eternally fresh. Again, neurone-like, the copse reaches out its thin tendrils into the cellular mass of Acomb. A sliver of green. 

I cut across its muddy, dank gloom of black twigs and snared crisp packets, failing to ask the right question, and on, past the back entrance of St Stephen’s churchyard, to Beech Grove, another relic. I can’t remember the name of the estate, long gone, which the avenue of massive beech trees once led to (the fishponds were also part of it). A double row of Egyptian temple columns, leading nowhere. Another illegible fragment of a different time and place parcelled up as ‘green space’ and left embedded, like shrapnel or scar tissue, in the cell culture of housing development. I imagine they tried several times, but failed, to blow the trees up, like one of those Icelandic boulders inhabited by fairies which the road builders are forced finally to go around, having wasted a good kilo of dynamite.  

Somewhere on my route I saw the word ‘Hob’ or ‘Hobstone’ and a destination presented itself, a justification or galvanising principle for what had till then only been a mere walk to get some air: the Hobstone on Hob Moor. I set my sails southwards and felt the pull of the Hobstone, the vagueness of its features forming in my mind like a stalagmite. From the straightbacked Victorian shopping row of Acomb Front Street I cut down through the Arts and Craftsy posh bit of Acomb which loosely hangs around Hobgate and Moorgate, eschewing those alternative sites of myth, Holgate Windmill and West Bank Park (site of the fake Alpine ravines and cliffs of the former Backhouse Nursery). Trying too hard to avoid the known route, and pulled by the obscure gravity of the Moor, I tried to follow the most direct line and prospect for a way through to the Moor down a street called Queenswood Grove (gravid consort of the nearby Kingswood Grove, where I lived until I was four). This circuit of a street, shaped like it’s trying to draw the belly of a pitcher plant, led me round in a circle and no way through to the Moor was there. I was forced to pay my dues to the labyrinth before I was allowed on the Moor (itself a labyrinth). 

I found the Moor where I knew it to be. I noticed a stone-built Victorian house by the entrance to Hob Moor School at the bottom of Green Lane: imagining it when it was built, all alone on the lane leading from Acomb to the Moor, surrounded by fields. A flashback. Striking out for the Hobstone greatly increased the distance of my walk, beyond what I’d intended. It’s out on a limb; not really in Acomb at all. The stone, a badly eroded effigy of a knight about two feet tall, sits next to a plague stone next to the path in a limb of Hob Moor known as Little Hob Moor, which is cut off from the main Moor by the East Coast Main Line railway. It is, in fact, close to Tadcaster Road, the old Roman road into York from the South West. The stone was placed in its present position in 1717, but the carving predates that (13th century, if I remember correctly – or 14th). An inscription on the reverse, now gone, read: “This image long Hob’s name has bore who was a knight in time of yore and gave this common to ye poor”. For some strange reason, the knight faces towards the Moor, not away from it so that it would face you as you enter the Moor – it stands at an entrance to the Moor. I remembered it as a deeply pitted and misshapen knub of limestone, like a chewed pencil rubber sticking out of the ground, with no trace that it had ever represented a knight.  

A long stretch of walk took me across Hob Moor to the stone. It used to be on my cycle route to and from work, so memories of that time arose. My father used to walk his dogs there when I was a child: always clockwise around the perimeter, never anti-clockwise. One Christmas Day he brought me here to try out a boomerang I’d got. My father had the first throw and it smartly disappeared into the ditch or the hedge and was never found; he promised he’d buy me a new one, but never did. There used to be two or three old railway wagons which football clubs used to change in, but these were burnt out and are now gone. Motorbikes used to tear up the scalloped edges of the old brickworks, until barriers were placed at the entrances to the Moor. The line of the narrow-gauge railway leading to the brickworks is still clearly seen: a lone bush on the line of it turns out every spring to be one half elder and one half hawthorn. The Moor is windswept and mysterious. 

According to the ‘friends of’, the name comes either from Robert (Rob/Hob); from the trickster and marsh-spirit Robin Goodfellow; or from a name for the Devil. I can’t accept the Devil, but a minor (and folkloric) trickster cum ignis fatuus makes sense. Strange lights do hover over the Moor on dusky winter’s afternoons, even if they are just railway signals. Edmund Wilson swimming baths (now gone and replaced with a Lidl), lit up, used to be the guardian presence of Hob Moor for me; its twin concrete chimneys seeming, against the moving clouds, always to be falling and never landing, like Andrew Kötting with his resurrection jig in the film Edith Walks. 

I reached the Hobstone. It looked knightlier than I remembered – shield and the shape of a head could be clearly discerned – gazing back towards Hob’s Moor, the diminutive squirt’s view blocked by the embankment of the East Coast Main Line. If this Hob was a Robin Goodfellow, he was a severely eroded and impotent one, trapped in a crumbly block of limestone well on its way to the status of mineral content of the local soil, ridiculous as the Stone of Scone.  

Not willing to turn on my heels and return the way I’d come, I took the path which branches from the one I’d come on and went in the direction of York Railway Pond. This was new territory for me: in all the years I cycled past the Hobstone, I never once bothered to explore the path that branched off at that point and I never knew about the pond. Another foreign body in the tender meat of post-Victorian York, surrounded by a protective callous of suburban back gardens (various styles of fencing) and legitimated by a Council-sponsored noticeboard for the ‘friends of’. York Railway Pond is a sink hole which leads directly into the very mush and marrow of the earth; slate grey and frigid it is and frequented by fishermen (/kings). The way there from Little Hob Moor is guarded by an out-of-place row of Victorian terrace houses with an oddly Magrittesque feel – they are dark when the sky is light. Then a newish yellowbrick estate complete with serpentine roads that lead nowhere and a little swing park (so that the soft skinned yellowbrick youngsters don’t have to run the gauntlet of thistles, cowpats and working-class people on Hob Moor before their carapaces have hardened into those of cynical fag-smoking teenagers). Then a strange green corridor that spirals down to the omphalos of the pond itself (it truly is like the siphon hole of a huge buried mollusc). I walked (anticlockwise) round the pond, signs warning me of the dire consequences of a dip (apparently, rats pee in it). It seemed like a fitting coda to the Hobstone, this motionless whirlpool at the centre of it all guarded by gnomic fishermen. If the Hobstone is the head of the worn hobnail which holds the world together (or the axle on which it turns), and Fishponds Wood the unhealable wound, then the pond is a dark grail.  

After a votive pee against the railway embankment, I headed back home. It was getting dark and four crows perched atop four elder trees on the far edge of the Moor.

Spider spotting

Pholcus phalangioides, woodcut by Matthew Herring © 2016

I’ve got interested in identifying spiders. I got myself a copy of a great book called Britain’s Spiders by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith with some birthday money and I’ve rarely been away from it for long. There’s something very fascinating about learning all the different types of something (plants, birds, spiders etc) and it opens up a door to noticing and appreciating a whole world which is right under your nose. My son Conrad (5) is also getting hooked and I’m pleased about that. He used to ask me to show him the spiders in the shed long before I bought the book. My daughter, on the other hand, has decided (and decided is the word) she’s scared of bugs in general. I was somewhat phobic about spiders as a child and I think this has fed my current fascination (I have the sense that that’s not an uncommon route into arachnology). My beginner efforts at spider identification are faltering, but here are some of the types Conrad and I have been appreciating. 

 

Zygiella x-notata (missing sector orb weaver) 

These small silvery grey coloured spiders commonly weave their webs on the frames of windows and there are dozens of them all round the outside of my house. They are sometimes known as missing sector orb weavers, because they leave a section of their webs without any of the spiral threads (the webs look like garden spider webs with, literally, a missing sector). A single thread leads up from the centre of the web outwards to where the spider is hiding. At night they come out and sit in the centres of their webs – I’ve been checking on them with a torch when I go out just after dark to put the ducks to bed. 

 

Steatoda bipunctata (false widow spider) 

I’ve found one of these under the overhang of the roof of the coal shed, the odd one out in a row of zygiellas. It also only comes out at night. The web it weaves is a random muddle of sticky threads and nothing like the neat zygiella webs – it’s like the house in the otherwise neatly kept street with the overgrown front garden and the guttering falling off. The spider is a small thing with a round, brownish waxy abdomen with four tiny indented dots on it.  

 

Clubiona comta (sac spider) 

Ioana found one of these in the washing basket. It is small, sandy brown and furry, like a tiny mouse. The spinnerets form a prominent cone on the tip of the abdomen (not visibly divided in two). We put it in an empty icecream tub and it started to make a little silk tent in the corner. I’m assuming the species is comta on the basis that it’s the most common (and it was small). 

 

Amaurobius sp (laceweb spider) 

I found one of these under the lid of my compost bin (along with a number of other spiders I couldn’t identify and a large house spider I managed to sit on and which I fed to the ducks). I think they’re very attractive: mostly dark brown but with yellowish/creamy markings on the abdomen. I’d probably have assumed they were immature house spiders without the book. They make an untidy lacy sort of web, as the name implies 

 

Pholcus phalangioides (daddy longlegs spider) 

I’ve appreciated these spindly little blighters for years and they are all over our house, but I recently learned they eat house spiders, which is hard to believe. They are so spindly that they are almost invisible. They live up in the corners of the room near the ceiling. I noticed some time ago that they jiggle rapidly if you disturb them, presumably to make themselves harder to catch. They’re like little oscillating atoms. I like the fact that they are usually upside down with their abdomens pointing upwards, like tiny jam jars. 

 

The image at the top of this post is a woodcut of a Pholcus I made during my residency at Top Shed, Norfolk, in 2016.