Conference: Heritage, Community, Archives: Methods, Case Studies, Collaboration, Sheffield Hallam University


The Heavy Water Col­lec­tive presents artis­tic meth­ods that agi­tate, decon­struct and recon­fig­ure his­to­ries, using archives and col­lec­tions as source mate­r­i­al. Our objec­tive is to con­struct a sub­ver­sive archive of visu­al mat­ter that cri­tiques and desta­bilis­es estab­lished nar­ra­tives, through direct engage­ments with his­tor­i­cal arte­facts and doc­u­ments. We inter­ro­gate col­lec­tions sit­u­at­ed in uni­ver­si­ty libraries, pri­vate estates and pub­lic archives across the Unit­ed King­dom, through an estab­lished artis­tic research method­ol­o­gy. We aim to con­struct a con­stel­la­tion of objects and sub­ject mat­ter, in a way that begins to incor­po­rate these recon­fig­u­ra­tions of the past into a re-read­ing of the present moment. Through an inte­gra­tion of sto­ries, imag­in­ings, per­spec­tives and becom­ings, this artis­tic research project reflects upon the con­tem­po­rary issues bur­geon­ing out of the social, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al stra­ta examined. 

In this pre­sen­ta­tion, we ask if new futures can be imag­ined through artis­tic prac­tice when the past is rad­i­cal­ly rein­ter­pret­ed. We explore how we might fill the absences in a col­lec­tion through cre­ative inter­pre­ta­tion, using a rhi­zomat­ic approach to engag­ing with archives. Dis­re­gard­ing estab­lished cat­e­gori­sa­tion with­in a col­lec­tion reveals fur­ther insight as, for exam­ple, artic­u­la­tions of War sit along­side accounts of colo­nial­ist explo­ration, and patri­ar­chal mid­wifery prac­tices are aligned with vio­lent witch-hunt­ing meth­ods. Form­ing net­works of mean­ing through the sub­jects select­ed and the art­works pro­duced, the Heavy Water Col­lec­tive seeks to cre­ate a space in which estab­lished sys­tems are desta­bilised and rit­u­als of mourn­ing are revered. The Heavy Water Col­lec­tive brings an ethics of care with their scruti­ny. Can empa­thy grow out of the mate­r­i­al encoun­tered? Can pow­er and agency be redis­trib­uted through these artis­tic respons­es? Through this project, indi­vid­ual archives and col­lec­tions become entan­gled, objects become ensnared and his­to­ries adopt a‑temporal qualities. 

Generating New Sediment: Artistic Responses to Archives and Collections

There is a long his­to­ry of artists work­ing with archives. Mon­u­men­tal works, such as Fred Wilson’s Min­ing the Muse­um (1992) and Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Muse­um (199196), have influ­enced a gen­er­a­tion of artists seek­ing to work with archival arte­facts and col­lec­tions in order to make sense of their con­tem­po­rary con­text. There is some­thing impor­tant about look­ing back, specif­i­cal­ly in a con­text in which the future is uncer­tain. Artists who per­haps rep­re­sent a strug­gle to rede­fine his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives — those nar­ra­tives that exclude, neglect and mis­in­ter­pret inter­sec­tion­al notions of iden­ti­ty — are at the fore­front of this grow­ing field of artis­tic research. Yet, as the cli­mate cri­sis looms heavy on the glob­al psy­che, it is also a time in which look­ing back and mak­ing sense of how we got here has become, for many, a way in which to main­tain some sem­blance of hope for the future. It is through this bur­geon­ing of empa­thy for unearthed sor­rows and a recon­sti­tu­tion of mean­ing in the con­text of 21st Cen­tu­ry chaos that we find the Heavy Water Collective. 

The Heavy Water Col­lec­tive respond to objects and doc­u­ments that relate to his­toric moments of tur­bu­lence. Accounts of war, depic­tions of impe­ri­al­ist coloni­sa­tion, the sub­ju­ga­tion of women, the era­sure of indige­nous cul­tures and the exploita­tion of nat­ur­al resources — extract­ed from archives and col­lec­tions across the UK — all speak of vio­lent dis­place­ments in rela­tion to social, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal stra­tum. The grow­ing threat of the unfold­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, in itself a direct result of many of the his­tor­i­cal activ­i­ties and injus­tices ref­er­enced in the work, weaves through every aspect of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. We are liv­ing in post-nat­ur­al times; an age of mass eco­cides, species extinc­tions and post-nat­ur­al dis­as­ters. In a polit­i­cal scram­ble to main­tain cap­i­tal­ist growth in this deplet­ing envi­ron­ment, we are also wit­ness­ing an increase in socio-polit­i­cal crises. In Britain, for exam­ple, inequal­i­ties are dras­ti­cal­ly deep­en­ing, pub­lic ser­vices are reach­ing the point of col­lapse and the cost of liv­ing is ris­ing expo­nen­tial­ly. The every­day feels bleak and hope­less for many, and this tur­bu­lence is the back­drop to Heavy Water’s engage­ment with archives and col­lec­tions, as seem­ing­ly dis­parate and uncon­nect­ed events are researched, decon­struct­ed and reformed to gen­er­ate insight­ful con­stel­la­tions that map out the path of inter­con­nect­ed destruc­tions through time, in order to retrace the for­got­ten voic­es of the past and locate spec­u­la­tive futures. 

Vic­to­ria Lucas has so far sourced and researched his­tor­i­cal items relat­ing to witch­craft and witch-hunt­ing; child­birth and mid­wifery prac­tices; folk­lore and rit­u­al; British impe­ri­al­ism; appro­pri­at­ed mytho­log­i­cal sym­bols; the advent of land enclo­sures and process­es of land extrac­tion. Cast­ing a wide net across inter­re­lat­ed sub­ject mat­ter gath­ers togeth­er spe­cif­ic events that, col­lec­tive­ly, speak of what she terms inter­sec­tion­al colo­nial­ism; of bod­ies, of lands, of com­mu­ni­ties, of cul­tures. Maud Haya-Baviera has so far re-inter­pret­ed items relat­ing to tourism, the exploita­tion of the land and the liv­ing, and war. Her artis­tic respons­es to these arte­facts trans­late a resis­tance to view the world in pes­simistic terms, and offers — if not a sense of hope — a way to con­nect emo­tion­al­ly and cre­ative­ly with past and present real­i­ties. Joan­na Whit­tle has referred to the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion as a point of bifur­ca­tion of faith and polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, which is then hinged with sim­i­lar fis­sures of tur­moil in peri­ods of war. Her research into sources relat­ing to reli­gions, mourn­ing rit­u­als, arche­ol­o­gy, mate­r­i­al cul­ture and war cre­ates new mytholo­gies woven from reli­gious texts, poet­ry, war cor­re­spon­dence pub­li­ca­tions, roman­tic land­scape tropes and mapped topographies.

The Heavy Water method­ol­o­gy begins with the archive itself. Each artist looks for the residue of the unusu­al and obscure — items that have washed up from a dif­fer­ent time — cul­tur­al stra­ta packed away in box­es and on shelves and qui­et­ly gath­er­ing dust. In this sense, the Heavy Water Col­lec­tive are able to negate estab­lished insti­tu­tion­al cat­e­gories assigned to archives and col­lec­tions, pulling togeth­er objects that have seem­ing­ly dis­parate ori­gins and his­to­ries. New aggre­gates and con­stel­la­tions are devel­oped through the works made, which take shape out­side of the main­stream clas­si­fi­ca­tion schemes wide­ly used to cat­e­gorise mat­ter. In this way, the result­ing body of research is sep­a­rat­ed out from the influ­ence of the often out­dat­ed struc­tures encoun­tered. The Dewey Dec­i­mal Sys­tem, for exam­ple, was found­ed by Melvil Dewey; a well known misog­y­nist, racist, anti-semi­te, edu­ca­tor and librar­i­an. Dewey, who was repeat­ed­ly accused of sex­u­al harass­ment by his female co-work­ers, is cred­it­ed for the order­ing the vast major­i­ty of our knowl­edge and his­to­ry. So what does that mean for women’s his­to­ries? Where is val­ue placed, and what bar­ri­ers does this create? 

Digi­tised archival con­tent and cat­a­logue list­ings of archived items are exam­ined at length, which then informs phys­i­cal vis­its to sites in which sources are engaged first-hand. The phys­i­cal encounter with each arte­fact is often doc­u­ment­ed through pho­tog­ra­phy, scan­ning, sketch­ing and record­ing, and these images and notes are referred to and / or incor­po­rat­ed in the meth­ods devel­oped in the artists’ stu­dios. Each mem­ber of the col­lec­tive approach­es their respec­tive research and / or recon­nais­sance inde­pen­dent­ly. It is not until pre­sent­ing find­ings through the web­site, via pub­li­ca­tions and pre­sen­ta­tions, or through cura­to­r­i­al projects and exhi­bi­tions, that the cre­ative out­put is placed in the col­lec­tive are­na. As a result of this method­ol­o­gy, the art­works gen­er­at­ed by the three artists main­tain artis­tic integri­ty, avoid­ing a homog­e­niza­tion of prac­tice and out­put. In pool­ing indi­vid­ual find­ings, three inde­pen­dent voic­es then speak as part of a whole. It is each col­lec­tive member’s dis­tinc­tive approach to mak­ing that gen­er­ates fur­ther insight; in much the same way as a selec­tion of unre­lat­ed art­works or arte­facts might com­mu­ni­cate in muse­o­log­i­cal are­nas of dis­play. It is thus through their organ­i­sa­tion of visu­al mate­r­i­al, devel­oped in response to the same col­lec­tion or archive, that an emer­gence of new con­ver­sa­tions, inter­re­la­tions and threads of dis­cus­sion manifest.

As an artis­tic researcher, Vic­to­ria Lucas inter­ro­gates how nature is con­struct­ed, and how the con­cept of nature in turn con­structs our polit­i­cal and social imag­i­nary, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on how gen­der is pro­duced, rein­forced and can be under­mined through the self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women with­in the land­scape’ (Velvick, 2023). She believes that philo­soph­i­cal posthu­man­ist re-immer­sions with our envi­ron­ment have the poten­tial to move [us] beyond the hori­zon of the present” moment, through con­cepts that can sup­ply us with the provo­ca­tion to think oth­er­wise, to become oth­er­wise” (Neima­n­is and Loewen-Walk­er, 2014). The meth­ods test­ed by Lucas hold a num­ber of mate­r­i­al com­po­nents — includ­ing video, dig­i­tal imagery, per­for­mance, sculp­ture, sound — which work togeth­er to form an aggre­ga­tion of recon­sti­tut­ed mate­r­i­al. Mat­ter is entan­gled through the use of tech­no­log­i­cal con­spir­a­tors for exam­ple, as the vio­lence of extrac­tion is re-enact­ed in a way that reclaims the exploita­tive struc­tures that Lucas cri­tiques. The bound­aries of mate­r­i­al things are pushed and test­ed, and these process­es of mate­r­i­al desta­bil­i­sa­tion form an inter­ro­ga­tion of the past through the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the archival arte­facts encoun­tered. For exam­ple, An Account of the Voy­ages (2022) is a series of dig­i­tal works that expose rup­tures in the fab­ric of illus­tra­tions extract­ed from a 1773 account of British coloni­sa­tion. British depic­tions of these his­toric encoun­ters with indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across the South­ern Hemi­sphere are torn apart though the glitch of the scan­ning method under­tak­en by Lucas, cre­at­ing space in-between the pix­els for new nar­ra­tives, per­spec­tives, and posthu­man­ist becom­ings to emerge.

Maud Haya-Baviera’s prac­tice-led method­ol­o­gy is one of intu­itive and play­ful pro­duc­tion. She employs meth­ods that draw upon exper­i­men­tal artis­tic tra­di­tions as a way to gen­er­ate empa­thet­ic respons­es, includ­ing pho­to­graph­ic col­lages, film­mak­ing, sculp­ture and sound pro­duc­tion. For the research con­duct­ed at Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery, Haya-Baviera refers to the orig­i­nal archi­tec­tur­al design of the site, which was itself inspired by Roman­tic styl­isations and bor­rowed iconog­ra­phy from a vari­ety of coun­tries and cul­tures viewed as exot­ic. In the work If Only Rome (2023), a series of five dig­i­tal col­lages, Haya-Baviera inves­ti­gates the phe­nom­e­non of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion by cre­at­ing inti­mate illu­mi­na­tions, which through their frag­men­ta­tion evoke a sense of both pres­ence and vacan­cy — a sense of loss — all of which respond to past archi­tec­tur­al prac­tices and to a wider con­text of glob­al­i­sa­tion in which the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of cul­ture is a way to gen­er­ate eco­nom­ic gain (Cherid, 2021). Anoth­er method employed is exem­pli­fied by the video work Beyond The Woods (2023). The work is com­posed of voiced let­ters writ­ten by sol­diers, archival post­cards and land­scape paint­ings from war zones and USSR brochures, sourced dur­ing a Heavy Water Res­i­den­cy at the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions at Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty. The inten­tion beyond this process was to cre­ate an emo­tion­al, a‑temporal and a‑geographical account of con­flict. The result­ing work is pen­sive and del­i­cate; grave yet affirmative. 

Joan­na Whit­tle approach­es her research through a tran­si­tion­al prac­tice of inves­tiga­tive com­pos­ite draw­ing, in which sev­er­al sources are drawn togeth­er to cre­ate new mytholo­gies. For exam­ple, from the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions at Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty she inte­grat­ed sources from Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion texts with reportage for the First World War, prints of Paul Nash and the war poet­ry of Richard Adling­ton. These were woven into a nar­ra­tive mesh of bucol­ic and roman­tic Eng­lish land­scapes as an under­ly­ing and spec­u­la­tive set­ting for the art­works, pro­vid­ing a back­drop for this mise-en-scène in which fig­ures move between the tem­po­ral­i­ty that once con­fined them. From this point of embarka­tion Whit­tle goes on to cre­ate both paint­ings, post­card works and ceram­ic arte­facts. Her approach is holis­ti­cal­ly phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal, where­by she cre­ates new mytholo­gies from the assumed fact of expe­ri­ence; assum­ing that archival mate­r­i­al is a direct phys­i­cal residue of lived expe­ri­ence. Com­bined with this she equal­ly both research­es and cre­ates from a Hei­deg­ger­ian posi­tion­al­i­ty, in which her search incor­po­rates his the­o­ry of Abgrund where an absence of ground sig­ni­fies a time of des­ti­tu­tion, per­pet­u­at­ed by its con­ceal­ment. Joanna’s search into the mate­ri­al­i­ty of archives rep­re­sents an attempt to uncov­er this void, in the way that one tears holes in lay­ered hand­bills to find the words and worlds beneath, enabling lay­ered his­to­ries to exist contemporaneously. 

Sub­se­quent cura­to­r­i­al meth­ods act as a process of re-imag­in­ing, re-assem­bling and reveal­ing his­to­ries through the arrange­ments estab­lished, often in the con­text of the gallery or muse­um. The bound­aries between research, pro­duc­tion and cura­tion become porous, repli­cat­ing the messy liq­uid­i­ty of his­to­ry and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of cat­e­go­riza­tion as a solid­i­fi­ca­tion of truth. If we look at the dis­play case cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ed as a part of the Post­Na­tures exhi­bi­tion in Graves Gallery, for exam­ple, we see memo­r­i­al rib­bons depict­ing frag­ments of grave­stones posi­tioned next to a dig­i­tal­ly rup­tured visu­al cri­tique of colo­nial­ist dis­cov­ery. There’s a witch­es lad­der embell­ished with carved amulets posi­tioned next to con­struc­tions of reli­gious iconog­ra­phy, re-appro­pri­at­ed Greek Mythol­o­gy and re-artic­u­lat­ed war imagery. Col­lec­tive­ly, these works high­light the era­sure of indige­nous knowl­edge in both the UK and over­seas in the name of cap­i­tal­ist growth. They speak of essen­tial­ist pow­er, of human­ist destruc­tion, and of the after­math of this vio­lence. They inter­ro­gate humans’ need for rit­u­al and remem­brance, while sift­ing through the mate­ri­al­i­ty of being and what that might mean in the con­text of an eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. This body of artis­tic research con­veys the fact that humans are mate­ri­al­ly enmeshed with their sur­round­ings, through the beau­ty and tragedy of mean­ing they attribute to the stuff of the world. Stone is carved to remem­ber us in death and paint is used to trans­late the depth and com­plex­i­ty of these rit­u­als. Tail eat­ing snakes are trans­formed into an anti-cap­i­tal­ist omen, so that lines are drawn between the par­a­sitic effects of Cap­i­tal and the result­ing eco­log­i­cal crisis. 

In addi­tion to curat­ed exhi­bi­tions and muse­um dis­plays, The Heavy Water col­lec­tion is housed in a dig­i­tal archive. Works are giv­en acces­sion num­bers that relate to the mak­er and also the col­lec­tion to which the art­work refers. This reassem­bled cat­e­gori­sa­tion allows each work to exist phys­i­cal­ly, dig­i­tal­ly and con­cep­tu­al­ly as part of a wider dia­logue around how we might gen­er­ate archives and re-cat­e­go­rize and de-colonise his­to­ries through an engage­ment with arte­fact. The archive is ordered geo­graph­i­cal­ly through active map­ping, reveal­ing the inter­re­la­tions between site, research and object. This map, along­side archival items, will con­tin­ue to be pop­u­lat­ed, so that a grow­ing net­work between future and cur­rent active sites of research devel­ops. The dig­i­tal archive is live and acces­si­ble as an active resource that dis­rupts tra­di­tion­al archival mod­els, and cre­ates a new trans­ferrable method­ol­o­gy for mean­ing­ful­ly engag­ing with archives and col­lec­tions. As the Human­i­ties face major chal­lenges from Uni­ver­si­ty clo­sures, and with a lack of polit­i­cal sup­port from Cen­tral Gov­ern­ment, this artis­tic research joins forces with art gal­leries, archives and col­lec­tions, estab­lish­ing a rich net­work with visu­al artists, archivists, cura­tors, stu­dents, researchers and mem­bers of the pub­lic. Heavy Water thus fore­fronts the val­ue of pre­serv­ing archives for cul­tur­al her­itage, pub­lic access, and for under­stand­ing our past in order to imag­ine a more mean­ing­ful future. 


From, At and After the Freud Muse­um’, in From the Freud Muse­um 1991 – 6 by Susan Hiller, Tate Research Pub­li­ca­tion, 2017, https://​www​.tate​.org​.uk/​r​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​/​i​n​-​f​o​c​u​s​/​f​r​o​m​-​t​h​e​-​f​r​e​u​d​-​m​u​s​e​u​m​-​s​u​s​a​n​-​h​i​l​l​e​r​/​f​r​o​m​-​t​h​e​-​f​r​e​u​d​-​m​useum, accessed 9 March 2023.

Wil­son, F. and Halle, H. (1993). Min­ing the Muse­um in Grand Street, 1993, No.44 pp.155 – 172

Cherid, M I. (2021). Cul­tur­al stud­ies, crit­i­cal method­olo­gies, 2021, Vol.21 (5), p.359 – 364