Physical Index

Final Project - Paul Glennon - Module 4


Part 1 - Intro Section 2 - Research Section 3 - Main Part 4 - Extra
General Topic Susan Hiller Preliminary Plan Appendix
Rationale Stanley Brouwn Realisation includes:
  Hanne Darboven Building sketchbook,
  Art & Language Analogue & Digital Index references,
  2006 Turner Prize Testing & Evaluation thanks, etc.

General Topic


Information retrieval is faster now than ever, especially with the advent of the computer and the Internet. Whole museum libraries can be accessed online from the other side of the world in an instant.

This is a great advance as it allows us to research and send information automatically. But is there a loss? Is it still possible to find a book in a library by accident? We can browse online, but is this proper ‘window shopping’ or are we really just staring at ‘Windows 2000’?

Index systems have changed dramatically due to the digital era that we are living in. This work will focus on the loss of paper-based indexing in favour of screen-based systems.

NB - This work also follows on from the previous module of this MA, Creative Applications for Audio and Video, ‘Miniature Index’. The work for that module is being extended here. This work is a series of small screens, hidden in a filing cabinet, that ‘index’ ways of working.




Staff at the Natural History Museum in London use the Internet to index their vast collection of books but, uniquely, they have kept their old style index card system (for fear of losing any old material not yet backed up). Prior to the beginning of this module, access was gained to the library in the Natural History Museum and visual comparisons were made of the two systems (see left). There is a clear difference between the aesthetics of the two systems that the Natural History Museum uses. The juxtaposition of the two is quite interesting. This project will use these comparisons as a spring board for creating a work entitled ‘Physical Index’.

Thoughts in our heads can come and go without ever being realised, vocalised or made public. In the past artists have used indexing to record thought processes and memories from personal and social perspectives (those of their own and others). In the physical world things disappear every day without a trace. The digital era is powerful but, like the industrial revolution, it leaves behind systems, objects, people and the very world we live in. This project will try to create a work that will record notions, through indexing, that are here one moment and gone the next.

Through observations of artists, institutes and other information, it is hoped that concepts and ideas can be sought. From these ideas, a body of work will be developed that, ironically, spans analogue and digital environments.


Susan Hiller

born USA, 1940


‘From the Freud Museum’ by Susan Hiller is currently in the Tate Modern in London, but it was previously created as an installation for the Freud Museum at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London (Sigmund Freud’s former home). Most of the work is not directly linked to Freud but more to the ‘I’ of Hiller’s daily life and her anthropological approach to her art work.

The many boxes that are collected in this exhibition show a vast array of material from around the world. The brown display cases that hold the material have been very carefully made to house the objects, almost like a museum collection of bones or relics.

To accompany the exhibition at the Tate, Hiller created a book as an extension of the art work called ‘After the Freud Museum’. In the afterword for this book Hiller mentions the collection of artefacts and objects in the existing Freud Museum as being complicated by ‘an overlay of settings (that) merge to representations whose meanings are always in flux’. She goes on to say that Freud’s collection could be seen as ‘an archive of the version of civilization’s heritage that he was claiming’. Hiller describes her work in the following way:

‘ collection is more like an index to some of the sites of conflict and disruption that complicate any such notion of heritage’ (Hiller, 2000)

Hiller is indexing her items as a response to the Freud collection. It would appear that she does so to obtain a reaction to indigenous items displayed together, thus evoking a response.

There are many ways that Hiller could have displayed her collection, but the metaphor of a museum is important and the index element is further extended in her book.



Stanley Brouwn

born Surinam, 1935


‘1000mm’ was created by Stanley Brouwn in 1974, and is currently in the Tate Modern, London. This piece of work explicitly uses indexing in its very structure. 1000mm (a particular journey) is measured out on index cards and stored in an elongated index drawer sat on a purpose-built table. This piece of work demonstrates Brouwn’s interest in measuring his own footsteps, both in actuality and metaphorically (sketch below).
In 1971 Brouwn used another form of indexing in quite a unique way. He successively visited several different countries and counted the steps that he took each day. He then called the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and these steps were recorded on index cards via the telephone and added to the exhibition.

Like many conceptual artists from that period, Brouwn was interested more in the actual process or act of creating work. Although the index cards are part of the physical make-up, they are not the central focus.

Recently Brouwn has exhibited work in the Christine Burgin Gallery, New York. The recording of distance through measurement is still central, only the medium he uses is books. In the actual exhibition, these minimal books are stacked in simple white bookshelves and serve as a catalogue of events in the artist’s life. It is interesting to see, like Hiller, that the book has now become central to the artist’s work. Like a dictionary, it becomes a reference book.


Hanne Darboven

born Germany, 1941


It could be said that there is no direct index in Hanne Darboven’s work, however, she does supply curators with an index along with the work which, ‘provides information on the coding system to be used’ (Marzoni, 2005).

The reason why Darboven needs to supply such information is because her work is constructed using numerical systems to represent calendar dates on graph paper. These dates, in some cases, have historical reference to important dates - such as ‘Quartett ‘88’’. In this piece of work Darboven celebrates the lives of four great women - Marie Curie, Rosa Luxumburg, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf (below). For this later piece of work it is worth noting that Darboven uses image as well as notes on graph paper.


What is interesting about Darboven’s work is her determination to work out her own mathematical system which allows her to create artworks about dates and time. In order to do this she writes endless notes that rely on a successful information retrieval system.
Like Hiller and Brouwn, Darboven has recently began to focus her work on her books. In 2002 ‘BÜCHER (Books)’ was displayed at the MUMOK Museum in Vienna, Austria. These books were a vast collection of her annotations which catalogue her calendar references.

‘...with enormous discipline and precision, she filled page after page with calendar dates, on which she imposed a system by working out the sum of the digits for days, months and years and translating them into geometric forms, as well as summarizing them in indices. In this way temporal extension is made accessible to the senses.
(MUMOK, 2002)

In the past the ‘indices’ that Darboven used have been perhaps more for her own reference in working out the composition of her artworks. Now, in this book format, she is offering her very working processes as her art.

One other area of interest is Darboven’s recent ‘collectors’ work. Her studio in Hamburg-Harburg has been converted into a collector’s shop with a mismatch of mass media paraphernalia. This work is a departure from her mathematical work to a more physical representation of how history can be recorded through various cultures.

It is worth noting here that if Darboven is actually turning her studio into a collector’s shop or museum, then she may have some form of indexing system.

Art & Language

started in 1960s England


There are some visually interesting remnants from the Art & Language movement in the Tate Modern, London. For example ‘Map to Not Indicate..., 1967’. This work along with others was the result of co-operation between Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin who went to Coventry Art School together (and a host of other people from England and America).


What is ironic about the work in the Tate is the fact that the group refused, in the 60s and 70s, to produce actual artworks but instead would create opportunities to discuss art. These opportunities consisted of panel discussions, lectures and publications. One worth noting was the ‘Art-Language Journal’.

This anti-art stance took its inspirations from various quarters such as Marcel Duchamp and the ‘Cours’ from Ferdinand de Saussure, along with the writings of Roland Barthes. It appeared that the group were concerned that art had become inaccessible to the public.
(A question worth asking was whether or not they did help to make art more accessible.)

Ultimately, the work was collected together and (ironically) ended up in various exhibitions. Indexing was very pertinent in an exhibition entitled ‘documenta V’, 1972. The work, ‘Index 01’, consisted of the following:

‘In a large room, two filing cabinets were set up on each of four blocks. A total of 48 drawers contained the articles and fragments of articles hitherto published in “Art-Language”, along with some as yet unpublished. The articles were sorted according to two criteria: at first they were placed in alphabetical order, and within this scheme, they were ordered by their degree of completeness. The large wall surfaces of the exhibition room were covered almost completely with sheets of paper on which Art & Language presented a complex system of indexing some 350 quotes.’
(Marzona, 2005).

The Lisson Gallery in London has acquired much of the Art & Language material and, more recently, has put on exhibitions of their recent work. The actual use of an index, however, is not as evident as in ‘Index 01’.
Paul Wood, when writing about ‘Index 01’ in his book ‘Conceptual Art’, says the following:

‘The Index challenged convention on all fronts: the nature of the artist (it was collectively produced); the nature of the work (it consisted of objects and texts); and the nature of the spectator (the work was to be read). (Wood, 2002)

Wood goes on to qualify this by referring to a statement by German born philosopher, Rudolf Carnap: ‘how one does one’s singling out determines what one singles out’. (Wood, 2002). In the traditional use of an index, when an ‘abstract’ is taken from a text it allows for successful ‘information retrieval’. The elements brought together in an artwork will allow the current audience from a particular culture and time to retrieve information and establish the meaning or intention of the artist.
The Art & Language group were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1986 for their artwork ‘Index: Incident in a Museum, Madison Avenue’. Although the word ‘index’ is in the title, there are no actual indexes in the work.

2006 Turner Prize

nominated artist Phil Collins


Although the Turner Prize this year has not been awarded yet, there is one work in particular where indexing is playing a part. Phil Collins has created an actually functioning office that is dedicated to researching and recording information about people in Britain who have been on a television chat show between 1990 and 2000. He is interested in finding out how they have been affected by being on the show and how the general public are more willing now than in the past to talk publicly about their personal lives.


The work is called ‘Shady Lane Productions’ and supports his first piece of work which is a video installation of people from Turkey being interviewed about their experiences on chat shows. As the work spans two countries it can almost be called anthropological, and the juxtaposition of the two together is quite interesting.


In this office, which is has all the standard equipment, there is a visible filing system. Collins states, in a Tate Web cast, that there will be three to four people working in the office daily from 10am to 6pm. From the Web cast it is evident that he is more interested in the collecting of experiences, but if one sees the work (without prior knowledge), one is watching a live office in action. The very life of this office is visually interesting even before finding out what is going on.

Preliminary Plan


The work produced for this project will play on the fact that, currently, one form of paper-based indexing is being replaced by a digital one (as in the Natural History Museum in London). In doing so it is hoped that the work will highlight a relationship between the two forms which will cause a reaction, perhaps even evoke some kind of empathy for one or the other and spark a debate about the ongoing depletion of matter-based material.
From the research carried out on artists who have indexed in some way or another, the following points have been observed:

Susan Hiller collects and indexes her boxes to evoke responses by the variation in content. She uses a form of juxtaposition of worldly objects, images and text.

All of Hanne Darboven, Susan Hiller and Stanley Brouwn have at some stage ‘catalogued’ their work as books and presented them as art.

The work that exists for the Art & Language groups has elements of irony as they refused to create work, instead preferring to talk and publish findings. So, by that rationale, is the remnants of ‘Index 01’ a real work of art, or evidence of their activity?

If we view Phil Collins’ ‘Shady Lane Productions’ without prior knowledge then we are witnessing a spectacle of an office; almost performance art.

These main findings have helped to direct this project in a particular direction. The project will consist of a digital / analogue index that catalogues all the items of an unknown person. One possible individual could be Mrs. E. Douglas (the author’s Grandmother), recently deceased, from Belfast, Northern Ireland. These items will be digitally photographed and printed onto index cards that will then be stored in the traditional sense. As with all indexes, observers will be allowed to ‘browse’ through the index and view the life of a person through the objects that they have left behind.

As a juxtaposition to this, the index will be displayed digitally in a style akin to that of a contemporary information retrieval database system (perhaps even futuristic!).



There were three things required to move this project forward. The first was the development of some sort of structure to hold the Physical Index. Feedback from the presentation indicated that how the work was presented would be important. The second was the mechanistic side of how the analogue index related to the digital, and the third was the actual content and subject matter of the index.

The structure was an important aspect as only a simple piece of software or code was required for the digital index. The first ideas centred around conversations with colleagues (some with structural knowledge of building materials). These ideas are shown in simple working drawings.


The first idea was some sort of tower system (but it seemed to have a twin tower feeling). The second concept was an actual wall with the a drawer arranged in some sort of geometrical way that allowed the viewer to see and use the material in a fashion styled around the human form (head and hand height). This idea was popular but not practical for moving the Physical Index. It was therefore decided that the end piece should be able to move from one location to another.


The following drawings, and pieces of hardware decided the actual shape of the Physical Index. The long format, although useful in terms of mimicking the wall, was too big for moving. The final idea was based on two things: the height of an average person and the golden section (studied on the first module for this MA - see To make this, 4 sheets of
8 x 4ft MDF were bought from a timber yard.



With a 72 inch height, the width was worked out using the golden section and then the screen hole, keypad hole and drawer hole all fell on points that ran from these proportions (the PC tower would be housed inside the structure). These proportions were then matched to human measurements such as where the eye fell and where the hand was when using the keypad and the drawer, not unlike Le Corbusier’s Modular.

From a drawing to the actual model there can be problems - therefore it was best to test out the measurements by standing by the first board prior to cutting in the workshop. Most of the measurements all fell into place as can be seen in the photographic steps on the following page. The work was all completed in a workshop and built with health and safety considerations monitored by specialist






Analogue & Digital Index


Alongside the building of the box, the content and subject matter of the index was being developed. As stated in the Preliminary Plan, Mrs. E. Douglas’ objects left behind after her death were photographed (over 250 items) from biscuit tins to religious icons. Ninety-two (the age that Mrs. Douglas died) of the objects were cleared of any background in Photoshop and saved as 750 x 550 pixel JPEGs.

Each one was saved as a 6 digit number:


307001, 307002, 307003, etc. These images would be saved into one file and comprised the content for the digital index.

The analogue index was created by writing one sentence about each object that evoked a memory in the author’s mind - this was done in quick succession. These sentences were typed directly into one Word document and then printed onto ninety-two 8 x 5 index cards:


It was hoped that the viewer would browse through the index drawer reading the sentences, select one and type the index number into the pad. On screen the image related to that sentence would appear, leaving the viewer to think about the connection between the two and the overall work.
The digital images were all saved on a file and then installed on a PC hard-drive with PHP software working on a Web browser. (PHP was first created by Rasmus Lerdorf in 1994 as a ‘Personal Home Page Tool’ to collect data about ‘hits’ on his Web site. It was further developed into PHP: Hypertext by various groups and is now in general use on the internet - see See essay for sample code.

When the PC is switched on, it is set to automatically open the Web browser and the index software is set to run. (To do this you drag the browser to the Start menu and hold it over until the option opens - then set it to open.) The browser is set on full window to close off any Web graphics.

There is usually a mouse arrow when a computer is opened. To get rid of this a ‘Hide Mouse Arrow’ piece of free software was downloaded from

All of the items were placed into the box and an extension cable ran from the back. To prevent the contents from over-heating, holes were drilled in the top of the box. The next stage was to test Physical Index with an audience who had no prior knowledge of the piece.

Testing & Evaluating


Prior to the presentation of this work, Physical Index was tested on students and staff at Thames Valley University, Reading Campus. The work was installed in a corridor and videoed (DVD attached to this Research Report). Below are some highlights from the DVD:



Some quotes from the DVD:

“I was wondering whether it was the artist’s mother or grandmother... made me think of when my grandmother was alive.”
“It’s quite a personal thing really ... it would be interesting to know what was going through her head...”
“It’s kinda like a cryptic file ...”
“It’s about indexing and looking at someone’s life ... each thing represents something special in that person’s life.”

Impressions gleaned from this testing suggested that people wanted to spend time looking through the quotes. The process of hunting through, selecting and then finding an image, kept people’s interest. The tactile qualities of the drawer and the keypad appeared satisfying as they matched similar processes in everyday life (eg, cash machine, ticket booths, etc.).

The index holds ninety-two index cards and images - but could be developed further. The PC could hold lots more images and the PHP code can be extended. This opens the opportunity to add more index sections.
There are concepts based around extending the index in other formats, including options that work on the web, print or the reproduction of index cards and images. Also there is room for observations of alternative materials to house the index.

As well as creating a substantial piece of work that explores the link between old and new indextechnologies, this piece has developed into a personal memorial.