COLLECTION | The University of Edinburgh Contemporary Art Research Collection



The University of Edinburgh’s Contemporary Art Research Collection is driven by current research undertaken in the School of History of Art. Taking globalisation and social reproduction as our central themes we are currently working towards acquiring new work by Melanie Gilligan, Petra Bauer and Kate Davis with the support of The Art Fund and Outset Scotland.


Shaping Collections: Globalisation and Contemporary Art

Acquisition 1: Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, 2015

Set in an eerily familiar future, Melanie Gilligan’s episodic drama The Common Sense revisits her critique of globalisation as a process that entails more than a geographic dimension. Her chillingly incisive – and occasionally humorous – narratives move beyond the capacity of globalised economic relations to shape space to instead train their sights on their internal, biopolitical impact – the way they shape subjectivity and intersubjective relations as the site of control and resistance.

In The Common Sense, advanced immersive technology enables individuals to tap into the feelings and sensations of others. Worn on the roof of the mouth, ‘The Patch’ has reformulated not only social contact but human society. In an early scene, a university lecturer recounts the history of the device, noting the optimism surrounding its introduction: ‘A lot of people believed it could bring about a collective political movement’, she explains as laughter spreads throughout the classroom. ‘Of course, it did make life more collective. Just not in the way they expected. The belief that being connected would mean that people would join together to fight for a better collective situation was false.’  Having dispensed with romantic notions of future solidarity, Gilligan goes on to reveal a world of thoroughly alienated collectivity, in which The Patch facilitates new types of productive labour and secretes control deep into the lifeworld of its users. Continuing with the same narrative strand, two characters brilliantly capture current anxieties: while the tense university lecturer admits to her class that that their real time feedback directly impacts upon her behaviour, she must also reprimand one of her students for struggling to keep up with his ‘tuition repayment work’ and lapsing into arrears. In advice that certainly resonates with today’s precarious realities, she makes plain that ‘it’s only through incredible commitment to self development that students can survive in this competitive economy’. This is a world where the value of networks and personal contacts is everything and constant measurement is the norm. Feelings – their capture, modification, use and exchange – are its lifeblood. When the Patch network inexplicably breaks down the student’s crippling disorientation is mirrored in the experiences of his peers as they struggle to deal with unmediated contact.


Acquisition rationale and contextualisation


The Common Sense will be the first acquisition made for The University of Edinburgh’s new Contemporary Art Research Collection.  Taking globalisation as its central theme the collection will analyse what the transformation of geographic, political, cultural and economic boundaries has meant in terms of artistic practice.  Though driven by current research undertaken within the School of History of Art, the theme has been selected for its potential to build links across disciplines.   In our first phase of activity this broad topic will be given an explicitly feminist inflection as we focus our attention on the scaffolding and shadows of the formal economy – those hidden dimensions of conventional production involving the maintenance, reproduction and socialisation of people. A common term within feminist political economy, ‘social reproduction’ concerns everything that relates to how we live, survive and thrive, from childrearing and cleaning to education and healthcare. Its contradictory relationship with capital accumulation has become yet more pronounced in response to intensified processes of globalisation and the re-privatisation of previously shared services, responsibilities and risks. That the impact of these changes – including the associated shifts in labour patterns – impacts particularly on the experiences of women is well documented, backed up by the recent prevalence of phrases like the ‘feminisation of poverty/labour/survival’. Our research considers how social reproduction has been negotiated in the field of art.


Developing a research collection: teaching, leading research innovation and social impact


What exactly differentiates this type of collecting from other strategies has been a recurring question since our initial conversations in 2014. Determined to avoid using artworks as merely illustrative materials, we want the development of the Research Collection to enhance our work, and the notion of using the collection – its construction, interpretation and indeed care – as part of a research methodology has become integral to our vision. To help flesh out what this might mean in practice, we have been testing the possibilities through our work with Melanie Gilligan. Following an Affiliate-funded visit to her studio in February 2015, we invited her to participate in a research workshop held at the University entitled ‘The Fabric: Social Reproduction, Women’s History and Art’ (13-14 June 2015). Her contribution included devising Shaped (2015), a new performance presentation hosted by the Talbot Rice Gallery. Under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Playfair Library, Gilligan focused on the relevance of the concept of social reproduction to her films, performances and critical writing, surrounded by marble busts of exclusively white male historical figures. In this context, what and who is left out of dominant narratives shot to the foreground. These discussions, workshops, screenings and public performances are part of a very conscious process of entering into a long-term partnership with the artist, whereby she is drawn into our research process as an active contributor. Though we anticipate that each acquisition will develop according to its own logic, we will remain as interested in the relationships and activities around the works as in the objects themselves.

From the outset we have integrated postgraduate teaching into the process of building the collection. Students pursuing the MSc in Modern and Contemporary Art: History, Curating, Criticism have led public discussion forums and participated in workshops dedicated to articulating the most pressing questions arising from collecting contemporary art while some have also undertaken their own supervised research projects examining specific issues such as commissioning-to-collect. This approach will expand in the near future as we work closely with the new MSc by Research in Collections and Curating Practices, launching in September 2017.   We aim to offer our postgraduate students a unique research environment where in-depth knowledge of a subject is supported by access to the practical and critical issues underpinning the development of a world-class collection.

The University of Edinburgh holds an extraordinary selection of over 8,000 items that reflect the 400-year history of the institution and the research pursued here. While the new Art Collection created through the merger with Edinburgh College of Art has nine distinct areas of specialism and contains a remarkable wealth of materials, the catalogue of existing holdings reveals a marked male bias. The new Contemporary Art Research Collection will openly redress this imbalance as well as the prevailing geographic focus on Western Europe. Setting the temporal brackets to encompass work produced since 1989 (when capitalist globalisation began to consolidate following the collapse of the Berlin Wall) will enable us to broach new territories in terms of space, media and practice.  Perhaps most importantly, the works selected, and the collection theme overall, make apparent the relevance of cutting-edge research to the major concerns of our times, opening routes for genuine social impact.


Kirsten Lloyd