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The archival afterlife of an artwork

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15/02/2016

By | From the Collections

The ‘Would you mind?’ installation was commissioned from artist and writer Neil Bartlett for Wellcome Collection’s exhibition: the Institute of Sexology. The piece took the form of a questionnaire available to visitors in the final section of the show. Samples from the anonymous questionnaires were displayed in the gallery. During the installation’s six month lifespan 19,280 questionnaires were completed, and these are now available to researchers in the Wellcome Library as the Would You Mind? archive (library reference WT/NVB).

archive boxes

The Would You Mind? archive in the Wellcome Library stores. Image credit: Wellcome Library.

You can read more about the installation in a blog post by Sarah Jaffrey, a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection who worked with the artist on the commission.

Would You Mind? art installation

Exhibition visitors completing the Would You Mind? questionnaire at the Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

Here we would like to present the perspective of the artist himself. In this excerpt from his artist’s statement, Neil Bartlett discusses the future of the piece beyond the exhibition:
“Every single questionnaire that was completed by the public was archived here in the Wellcome Library. The questionnaires are archived in the order in which they were read, i.e. week by week, each is serially numbered, and the front cover of each questionnaire gives the gender self-identification of the participant. However, since none of the public response was digitised, any future mining of this mass of text for either statistical or anecdotal evidence of people’s beliefs, feelings, theories or practices will have to be done by someone sitting down and reading at least a fair number of questionnaires. This was deliberate. It was the artist’s intention that the archival afterlife of the piece should provide a provocative and idiosyncratic snapshot of the sheer diversity of all of the above at a very specific point in time – no more, and no less. The completed questionnaires preserve voices which are as distinctive as the handwriting in which they are recorded, and that is their value. Whether they reveal any “significant” shifts in sexual belief, thought, feeling or practice – were people in 2015 more aware of gender-category diversity than a decade earlier; were women more confident; were lesbians more out; was consent a really big issue; was porn loved and loathed in equal measure – for instance !!! – will be up to future commentators and analysts to determine. It is to be hoped that they will remember that every single one of the19,280 participants in this artwork was self-selecting; they all chose to come to the exhibition, and they all chose to complete a questionnaire. None of their answers are boring, although reading them en masse as they were delivered each week was in turns dismaying, infuriating, depressing, moving and exhilarating.”
Neil Bartlett, September 2015
As Neil explains elsewhere in his artist’s statement, ‘Would you mind?’ was “explicitly not a sex survey; it was a work of art that drew on, deconstructed and re-purposed that form”.  Researchers are now invited to continue the process of deconstruction and repurposing by exploring the installation’s archival legacy.

Neil Bartlett’s full artist statement for the work can be viewed in the Library catalogue.

Anna Ostrowska

Anna Ostrowska is a Library Assistant at the Wellcome Library.

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