English Anxieties – The Mass Observation Archive

Tim Brennan's esoteric encounter with the Mass Observation Archive.

This exhibition ran between 15th March – 29th August 2009

Tim Brennan’s English Anxieties, is the result of a commission by Photoworks and Ffotogallery, Cardiff, in association with the European Centre for Photographic Research at the University of Wales, Newport about the Mass Observation Archive (MO) at the University of Sussex.

Since its inception in 1937, the archive has asked ordinary people to record their everyday lives. Brennan spent a year sifting through a myriad of boxes and folders, images and reports, to create a new body of work that celebrates the more esoteric areas of this vast archive.

The Mass Observation Archive results from the work of an experimental social research organisation founded by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings with the objective of creating ‘an anthropology of ourselves’. Mass Observation recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain, recording peoples conversations and behaviour at work, on the street, at public meetings and at sporting and religious events.

In this two-part exhibition Brennan has produced a reconfigured encounter with the archive that reflects his interest in modernism and mirrors the paranoia of the times. In the first section, Brennan creates a new archival space in the form of represented material from the archive and an artist’s book whose pages consist of photographs of the contents of MO archival folders.

In these archival tableaux, Brennan has incorporated observers’ reports on the behaviour of gallery visitors with commentary on chalk drawings, the occult, and with a reflexive nod to MO’s methods – the official archival request form listing the names of recent users. The combination of elements has immediate and subtler resonances, often unsettling, that opens up a sense of history as entwined with the worlds of personal and collective fantasy, as well as genuine fears grounded in real events. These images are also published in a limited edition artist’s book.

The other section of the exhibition contains a series of large-scale line drawings derived from an idiosyncratic report by TC Lethbridge of fifth-column or espionage activity taking place in Cambridgeshire during the 1940s. These are beautifully rendered as eloquent but minimalist drawings inspired by the graphic Isotype system, originally developed by Otto Neurath. Here Lethbridge’s report is transformed into a world that is colourful, deliberately sparse, succinct, the clinical yet cheerful tone offsetting the sense of paranoia. This pictorial world of coded messages by an assumed enemy presence, actual or otherwise, point to a sense of place close to the heart of myths of England.

Tim Brennan has been a practicing artist for more than twenty years. His discursive approach incorporates other academic disciplines such as history, architecture and geography, resulting in exhibitions, performances, writings and publications.