Part I: open now until 11 June 2014
'Happiness is a New Idea' is a building-wide exhibition that is a collaboration between the City Library and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. It will be realized in quarterly instalments over the next three years from April 2014 to April 2017. Between now and 2017 the building will host new artworks - often of unconventional forms - on every floor. The artworks will not only be on walls, but inside books, in study rooms, on computer desktops - and in other places where one might least expect them.
Many of the artworks explore what our public libraries and galleries have in common. Libraries and galleries are, arguably, the greatest civic inheritance bequeathed to us by our Victorian predecessors. Both are free and for everyone - forever. Both offer everyone the chance to learn about other ideas and other beliefs, from other places and other times. They are the only spaces in a city that require nothing from us but our imagination. Costing us nothing, they ask us what are values are, and invite us into other possible worlds. But in a world awash with things rather than ideas, can we still recognize the difference between value and cost?
The title 'Happiness is a New Idea' celebrates the fact that every visit to a library or gallery can plant the seed of a new idea in our minds. The phrase was coined in the heady days of the French Revolution - at what seemed the first moment at which ideals might become reality, and when it seemed genuinely possible to many that we might envisage each another as equals.
'Happiness is a new idea' is based around the interchanges between text and image, and between artists and writers. In the twenty-first century many artists use text as their main means of expression. Many writers also include images in their books. Both rely on print to disseminate their ideas - whether through texts, photographs, etchings, or engravings. Despite the promise of infinite connectivity that digital technologies offer, print still underwrites our existence. Every legal document, every transfer of property, every Act of Parliament, and almost every book, are made of ink stamped on paper.
The three artists who introduce 'Happiness is a New Idea' work with the written word: David Stedham on the ground floor, Kathryn Brame on the first floor, and Lily Mellor on the second floor, and ground floor. Watch out for more information as more works are revealed through Spring and Summer 2014.
David Stedham: 'Required Reading'
David Stedham's drawing imagines what it would be like if all of the information contained in the entire City Library was condensed into one person's mind. In the past, scholars remembered ideas by imagining a 'memory palace': an imaginary building in which each idea occupied a different room. Stedham's work operates on a similar kind of principle, in which all ideas and forms of knowledge are however, connected to each other through innumerable doors and passages. He notes that in the 21st century, the world of information is being reordered in entirely different ways to the traditional, rational way that libraries employ. New connections between different fields of knowledge - and between our imaginations - can be generated instantly. And yet many of us still imagine books as repositories of 'knowledge', and the internet by contrast as merely an endless vista of 'information'. Where does the difference between the two lie, exactly?
Kathryn Brame: 'Could We Go The Distance?'
'Could We Go the Distance?' asks how we make connections with others in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Brame asks how we use language to forge our most important bonds, and how what we might call our idealized images of ourselves and of others, can be conveyed through a handful of words. Here, Brame presents a collection of texts, taken from text messages, personal ads and love notes. Each sits delicately on the wall, a fragile, evanescent presence. Each offers a mixture of hope and longing. The messages capture declarations of affection or desire, from commuters' remembered fleeting glances, to chance encounters.
Brame traces each directly onto the wall, from an archive of paper cuttings. As she notes, by writing down our desires we solidify them, giving them substance. The desires left are traces of times past: daydreams and transient thoughts caught on the fly. Brame sees the work as reminiscent of the monument 'Juliet's Wall' in Verona, imagined to be where Romeo's Juliet lived. Visitors leave notes in the wall of the house, sending their romantic hopes and dreams out into the ether. Each anticipates that their message might, somehow, be read by the 'right' person, magically leading to the most important meeting of their lives.
Lily Mellor: 'Happiness, Happens is, Phases nip'
Lily Mellor presents what she describes as "a waterfall of 40 ribbons, in a colour associated with joy and sunshine". The ribbons seem to announce the re-opening of the City Library after a six-week closure for refurbishment and renovation. The vibrant yellow signals a celebration, in contrast to the austere marble floor. But on closer inspection something is amiss. Each ribbon is frayed to a different length up the wall, marking out heights.
Collectively, the ribbons draw out a bar chart that measures over two centuries the frequency that the word 'happiness' appears in all of the books scanned by Google. From the French Revolution to the present, the word has experienced a slow, steady, decline in print.
At least until recently, when how we measure 'happiness' has become a subject of heated debate - with even the prime minister arguing that we should measure it, instead of only gauging our national progress by our economic fortunes.
Lily Mellor: 'An Unobtrusive Sign'