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mick finch / the book of knowledge, 1 - 99

I’ve harboured the intention for many years to make work exploring the relationship I had with encyclopaedias, or to be more precise, with the Waverly Book of Knowledge that was  comprised of eight volumes and a dictionary.  Waverley encyclopaedias were less well known than the Britannica but were very popular.  They were sold door to door, were cheaper than other volumes and were seen as an essential educational resource for an aspiring post-war generation of parents.  I was born in 1957 and the Book of Knowledge was already a part of our household when I was born. J. G. Ballard hawked the Waverley from door-to-door and talked about them in an interview. My recollections of these books, although not from the same moment as those of Ballard’s, correspond with my memory of them. 

J. G. Ballard knows about selling. As a young man he briefly peddled children's encyclopaedias, working the psychological relationship between the middle-class hawker and the punter bent on self-improvement. Ballard "believed in" The Waverley because he had read it as a boy. Whenever he was bored his mother had told him, "'Go and read The Eight Volumes.' That was her name for them," he chuckles. "It was the nearest thing to television." *

These volumes made up some of my earliest memories and were the focus of endless hours spent turning its pages, mainly looking at its pictures, illustrations and diagrams.
Even when television arrived the Waverley continued to be a constant distraction, hypnotic and seemingly endless in what it offered. 
This was far from an innocent encounter - a recollection of fondness.  The Book of Knowledge was very much of its time, reflected the aspirations and prejudices of post-war Britain.  Empire, monarchy, parochial modernism and exoticism, a few of its traits that masked a sense of the catastrophe and ruins that haunted both its pages and the experiences of my parent’s generation. 
Eventually I bought two sets of the Book of Knowledge on-line, one to keep intact and the other to work with.  Re-encountering them was far from being a nostalgic memory exercise.  Some images I remembered very well but for the majority it was if I was seeing them for the first time. I was surprised that the actual quality of the images sparked more feelings of recollection and recognition - very dusky black and white images, some sepia and many highly retouched colour plates.
Since 2014 the volumes have acted as a pretext for making work based in appropriation and re-combination. The pages have been cut from one set, scanned and digitally archived, numbering, at the last count, some 1800 scans. The works made so far do not constitute a memory project as such, the interest is more in having a prescribed archive to access.  This access offers a pretext where strategies of layering or juxtaposition of images in PhotoShop are used to explore the material’s surcharge – a process of éclatement and surprise. 

* Quoted from 'J. G. Ballard: The comforts of madness', an interview with Marianne Brace, The Independent,
Thursday 14 September 2006.

 

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