Two weeks ago, strange coded messages hummed along the wires between the Inigo Rooms, King's College London's new exhibition space in Somerset House, and the British Library in St Pancras.
RH band confirmation.. nanometre wavelengths... lux levels. Readings eagerly exchanged on a twice-daily basis...not forgetting the dispatch of 12mm polyethylene strips, and a late order of security screws.
We were installing a new exhibition, John Berger: Art and Property Now , a celebration of 'art and archives connected to the celebrated storyteller'. The British Library has lent a number of highlights from our John Berger archive to the exhibition, augmented by an imaginative selection of private loans chosen by curator Tom Overton: paintings, drawings, and photo portraits by Berger and his friends and collaborators including Peter de Francia, Leon Kossoff, Prunella Clough, and Jean Mohr.
BS (British Standards) 5454 quite correctly sets out the recommended standards for the exhibition of archival documents: relative humidity, light levels, bicep diameter of the security guards, and so on. However, mulling over the readings coming in from the gallery, I couldn't help contrast the strict environmental conditions the documents now enjoy with the first time I had seen them.
In 2009, I was delighted when John agreed to a gesture of entirely typical - but nonetheless substantial - generosity and solidarity: to donate a lifetime's worth of manuscripts and documents to the British Library, where I head the English and Drama team. Only one condition : that I pop out to the High Alps, where he has lived for several decades, to sort and collect the papers. And, while I was there, might I help with the hay making?
The week or so my partner and I spent with John and the incomparable Beverly will surely rank as the highlight of my time at the Library. Manuscripts of novels and stories; letters from collaborators ranging from Tom Waits to Sally Potter; over seventy boxes and tomato crates representing a lifetime's creativity and engagement, stacked in the stables, and hauled out in a wheelbarrow to pore over in the garden. Lux levels determined by the angle of the crisp Alpine sun; security offered by a herd of curious cows (a hefty detail: guards to be reckoned with).
Eventually the Art Transporters arrived, causing well-meaning chaos in the small Alpine village with their comically disproportioned armoured pantechnicon, to take the archive back to the BL. I recorded the journey on a series of audioboos, and well remember the moment when the art transporters descended from the lorry's cabin to load up the boxes from the stables.
You could tell things had suddenly got serious. For they had donned their white gloves: the ultimate signifier of ephemeral private property becoming perpetual public patrimony. A moment of transubstantiation had been effected: or, rather, for a few moments more, a consubstantiation was being held in suspense in front of our eyes. These were still entirely ordinary scraps of paper; still in tomato crates, and still in a stable high in the Alps. And yet, by the act of donation to the Library, John had given his blessing to their transformation into public property, taking them beyond the present moment into what John called 'the company of the past', and towards preservation in an unlimited future.
In fact, when I called John's papers 'private property', I was wrong. For whatever their previous legal status, for John archives are 'another way of [living with] people who lived in the past who perhaps are still living or perhaps are dead; a way of them being present.' It is an archive's gathering together of friends and collaborators that the exhibition at King's celebrates; and the tensions between public art and private property that it interrogates.
Past becoming present; the sharing of memories neither side may actually have: these are familiar tropes of John's later writings (think the time bending encounters of Here is Where We Meet). A company of the past, not one man's private property. This is the spirit brought out by the King's exhibition, and this was the backdrop to the premiere of Colin MacCabe's directorial debut, Ways of Listening, that we screened for the first time at the Library last Friday.
Created by the London Consortium, the film records Tilda Swinton's journey to - and conversations with - John Berger one snowy winter's day a year or so ago. Snow is shoveled, apples are peeled and crumbled ('delicious', MacCabe was keen to assure the audience in the Q and A), and memories are both shared and created. A way of cutting an apple evokes a father's silence on the events of the First World War that he experienced but cannot share. Spaces open up for the listener, and the viewer; and if the snow outside still falls upon all the living and the dead, inside the distinction is suspended.
John's generosity in donating his archive to the country in 2009, and my journey to collect it, was not the end of a story, but its prologue. Since John donated his papers, others have followed suit, eager to join the company of the past being assembled at the British Library. A company always growing, never static, and forever finding new ways of speaking to each other... and to us.
Art and Property Now, presented by King's Cultural Institute and the British Library, runs until 10 November at Somerset House.
Ways of Listening, which premiered at the British Library on 7 September, is being distributed across the Festival circuit, and short sequences are available at www.londonconsortium.tv.
Writing Britain, the British Library's major summer exhibition on place and literature features manuscripts of John Berger, and runs until 25 September.
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