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'Would You Mind?' installation in The Institute of Sexology exhibition, Wellcome Collection

  • Bartlett, Neil, 1958-
Date
2015
Reference
WT/NVB
  • Archives and manuscripts

Collection contents

About this work

Description

'Would You Mind?' is a work commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and devised by the artist Neil Bartlett. It incorporates questionnaires completed by visitors to The Institute of Sexology exhibition at the Wellcome Collection between March and September 2015.

All the questions in the original version of the questionnaire were created by Neil Bartlett. In each subsequent weekly version one of Bartlett's questions was replaced by one suggested by visitors to The Institute of Sexology. By Version 25 all Bartlett's original questions had been replaced.

Visitors completed the questionnaires anonymously and on the understanding that the material would ultimately be made accessible to the public. Please note that 32 questionnaires in file WT/NVB/26 are closed until 1 January 2100 in accordance with the 1998 Data Protection Act as they contain sensitive information on living people who are potentially identifiable.

Publication/Creation

2015

Physical description

135 boxes

Arrangement

The questionnaires are catalogued according to version (1-25) and serial numbers. Each series (WT/NVB/1-WT/NVB/25) includes questionnaires from the corresponding week so changes in questionnaires' questiones can be tracked chronologically. Additional files (WT/NVB/27-28) include blank questionnaires from versions 1-25; envelopes used to put them in; additional documents explaining the context of the piece's creation and existence.

Acquisition note

Acquired from Wellcome Collection, March-September 2015.

Biographical note

Neil Bartlett is an independent theatre-maker, freelance director and author. He was born in 1958. He grew up Chichester, West Sussex, and now lives in Brighton and London with his partner James Gardiner.

In 1982 Bartlett set up the theatrical collective THE 1982 THEATRE COMPANY that took part in the first London International Festival of Theatre in 1981. In 1983 he was instrumental in staging Louise Parker Kelley's Anti Body, the first play produced in Britain to address the AIDS crisis. His early works, mainly controversial performance pieces, were staged at the ICA, the Drill Hall and Battersea Arts Centre and toured arts centres across the country. He is the author of numerous plays and has directed for theatres both in the UK and internationally. Between 1994 and 2005 he was Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, and he was awarded the OBE in 2000 in recognition of this work.

Bartlett's first book was a study of Oscar Wilde Who Was That Man? (1988) and his novels include Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall (1990), Mr. Clive and Mr. Page (1996); Skin Lane (2007), The Disappearance Boy (2014). In the 1980s and 1990s Bartlett was engaged in activism, speaking at the Sex and the State conference in Toronto in 1985, working behind the scenes on London's first International AIDS Day in 1987, working on the campaign against Section 28 and appearing at benefits and rallies from the Piccadilly Theatre to the Zap Club (Brighton) to Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park and the Albert Hall.

In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford Brookes University in recognition of his body of work and of his pioneering and continuing commitment to gay culture and civil rights. In 2012 he was awarded a second honorary doctorate by the University of Brighton.

Below is Neil Bartlett's Artist Statement for Would you mind? (the statement is preserved in the archive in file WT/NVB/28/7):

'THE GENESIS OF THE PIECE

Would you mind ? - or, to give its full title, Excuse me, would you mind if I asked you a few personal questions about sex? - was commissioned from Neil Bartlett by the Wellcome Collection to be exhibited during the last six months of their 10-month long 2014/2015 exhibition 'The Institute of Sexology'. Bartlett began formulating the piece with the show's curators while the exhibition was still at the planning stage, and having devised and written it was then able to modify the final content and display of the piece in response to seeing the exhibition up and running during its first four months. The piece was entirely site- and time-specific, in that it was intended to form an integral part of the exhibition rather than to function as a free-standing work of art.

Quite early in the development of the piece, Bartlett proposed that his piece should be the final exhibit in the show, and should explicitly provide an "ending" to the visitor's experience, functioning somewhere between an incitement to and a space for reflection. Its primary purpose is to specifically invite visitors to both think about and contribute to the show - and thus bringing the timeline of the exhibition "up to date". One of his earliest comments to the curators was that the implicit and true subject of the exhibition was in fact not Ellis, Hirschfeld, Freud, Stopes et al, but their anonymous informants, and hence implicitly the anonymous visitor, the "you" who provided a historical continuity with all of those informants and whom his new piece should now explicitly address in the present tense.

THE MATERIAL FORM OF THE PIECE

At the very end of the exhibition, visitors encountered a deliberately arresting wall-piece. This combined a constantly updated (and deliberately provocative) display of pseudo-sexological statistics with a scrolling LED display of short anonymous quotes about sex, the public authors of which were only described insofar as their chosen gender identifications and ages were attached to the quotes. The text of the wall piece concluded with an appeal to the public to fill in one of the questionnaires on an adjacent table.

A long, clinical-looking worktable - which deliberately did not provide any privacy for participants, foregrounding the experiences of shame and embarrassment - and openness - which filling in the questionnaire involved - was furnished with stacks of questionnaires and boxes of pencils. The questionnaire explained the intentions and method of the piece, and was carefully worded to satisfy all legal requirements regarding both the future privacy of all participants and any possible future publication of any material contributed by the public to the piece. Its opening tick-box questions deliberately subverted the ordering and categorisations that such questions normally assume - putting female before male as a gender identification, for instance, and giving "unhappiness" equal statistical weight as a category with "heterosexuality" A clear glass perspex "post-box" was provided for the completed questionnaires, as were plain brown envelopes ( a deliberate reference to the plain brown envelope in which pre-digital porn was traditionally mailed to postal customers). This mail-box was subtly stamped with the slogan "It isn't the people who answer the questions who change things, but the people who ask them". Discuss. This quote was unattributed, but was by Bartlett.

The title of the piece drew on an archaic but still vestigially current piece of British camp gay male phrasing, traditionally used to express ironic disbelief at an another party's temerity or boldness. A classic instance would be the reiterated use of the phrase in Noel Coward's short story Me and The Girls.

The materials of the piece - text, print, pencils, envelopes - were deliberately pre-digital and tactile. This was done in order to tie visitors' experiences of the piece more closely to the non-digital history of information-gathering and analysis that the exhibition documented, and to the visual and tactile qualities of the exhibits themselves.

THE INTENTIONS OF THE PIECE

Would you mind? was explicitly not a sex survey; it was a work of art that drew on, deconstructed and re-purposed that form. Both the graphic form of the piece - the questionnaire itself was at pains to mimic some of the official-looking graphic formatting of the historic NATSAL survey forms exhibited nearby - and the deliberate anonymity of the piece ( Bartlett's name was barely present, featuring only once, in a small and easily overlooked wall-label, which he himself positioned within the gallery) gave the impression of a certain clinical or even medical and sexological "authenticity"; however, the tongue in cheek humour of much of the wording and "staging" of the piece encouraged participants to experience the piece as subjective, personal, inclusive and good-humoured. Although participation in the piece produced several apparent "results" - an upping of the statistics displayed on the wall, the constant updating of the quotes from the public also displayed there, the visible filling of the perspex "post-box" with well-stuffed plain brown envelopes and (long-term) the filing away of all the questionnaires in the Wellcome Library - the real substance of the piece was the momentary and immediate experience it gave people of what it actually feels like to fill in a sexological questionnaire - and also to think about what sort of questions such a questionnaire should or shouldn't contain - to briefly play at being a sexologist, if you like, with all the implicit democratisation of sexual expertise such a gesture necessarily enacts. Most of the preceding exhibition consisted of documentation of the work of famous sexologists, women and men who may have been wildly different in their intentions and practices, but almost all of whom relied on a single method; asking large numbers of anonymous informants what they thought or did about sex. Would you mind? turned everyone into both an informant and a sexologist. It made everyone into an expert.

THE LIFE OF THE PIECE

The piece changed every week of the 25 weeks during which it was displayed. Every week, every single completed questionnaire was read by a small team of readers (drawn from a four-strong pool of part-time Wellcome Collection employees, all of whom were young female graduates). These readers had been selected and briefed by Bartlett. Their task was to cull interesting comments for possible use in the LED display, and interesting suggestions made by the public for a new question to replace one of Bartlett's original questions. Their suggestions were then forwarded to Bartlett by email each Friday, and he made the new "edit" of both the wall-piece and the printed questionnaire in time for the former to be amended and the latter reprinted by Wednesday morning (the exhibition was closed to the public on Mondays) This meant that by the end of the 25 weeks the questionnaire had been progressively and entirely re-authored by the public.

All of the reader's suggestions, and Bartlett's choices, itemised week by week, are appended to this statement, giving some idea of the selection criteria that were applied. Every attempt was made to ensure that gender parity was maintained in the choice of quotes, and a range of ages - but Bartlett would characteristically favour female over male choices if necessary to find the right quote or question to maintain the "flow" of the text both in the wall display and in the questionnaire, believing that this was a valid respite from the overwhelming male dominance which still too often characterises the public discussion of sex.

The piece received considerable media and online coverage. Bartlett himself wrote about some of the ideas behind the piece in the book accompanying the exhibition (The Institute of Sexology, published Wellcome Collection, London, 2014). In addition, he wrote and was interviewed for articles in the Guardian and the Daily Mail, talked about the piece on BBC Radio 3's 'Free Thinking' programme and at an in-conversation at Wellcome Collection with the novelist Kate Pullinger. The piece was also the subject of a Wellcome Collection blog post by one of the readers, Sarah Jaffray. Copies of the blog and press are included in this archive.

THE FUTURE OF THE PIECE

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.

THE DETAILS, AND FURTHER READING

Would you mind? opened to the public on 24th March 2015 and closed on 20th September 2015. The realisation of the questionnaire and the gallery installation was by John Morgan Studio; both elements were designed by Neil Bartlett. During the twenty-five weeks that the piece was on display, a total of 19,280 members of the public participated in the piece by completing questionnaires. Bartlett's published works are all held by the British Library, which also has an extensive archive of his performance and radio work, and of his literary and theatrical manuscripts.

Neil Bartlett, September 2015

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