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London Fieldworks discuss their new artwork now on display at the Ruskin Gallery

How did ‘London Fieldworks’ come about? Our paths crossed professionally as artists involved in performance/live art in the mid 90’s. We realized we had shared interests, which included interrogating the artist-audience dichotomy, and questioning the authenticity of mediated experience, especially experience of place. From there we instigated a couple of collaborative, cross-disciplinary projects: Gastarbyter (1997), with the electro-acoustic, New Zealand based composer Dugal McKinnon, an immersive gallery installation that invited connection between channels of perception–a symbiosis of the visual, tactile and aural; and Syzygy (1999), a telematic artwork made with a temporary collective of artists on Sanda Island, Southern Hebrides that transmitted weather and biometric data across a mobile phone network. We formalized our practice as London Fieldworks (LFW) in 2000 and continued our collaboration with the Polaria project (2001), a phenomenological exploration of nature that employed fieldwork data from NE Greenland to create a physiological interface to drive a gallery installation. These early works were seminal to the development of a notion of ecology as a complex inter-working of social, natural, and technological worlds. Ensuing projects, including Little Earth (2005), Spacebaby (2006), Hibernator (2006) and Super Kingdom (2008) created speculative works of fiction out of a mix of ecological, scientific and pop-cultural narratives, exploring themes of suspended animation, technology, fantasy and death.

What was the starting point for this piece? The concept and technological means underpinning Null Object have been in development for a number of years, and initially came out of an interest in brain-machine interfaces and the burgeoning role of databases across society, linking the psychophysics of the visual neuroscientist and experimental psychologist, Bela Julesz with modern industrial manufacturing technology. The piece is motivated by a concern with the mechanisation of vision and industrialisation of perception through the desire to mass communicate: who chooses what we see and how we see it, and how this affects our thinking about the world, notions of society and the solitary self.

Why did you choose to work with Gustav Metzger on this project? In 1995 we saw Gustav’s show Damaged Nature at Workfortheeyetodo in London and bought a copy of his book Damaged Nature and Auto-Destructive Art and became interested in his work. Our association with Gustav started in 1998 when he visited our Gastarbyter installation at the ICA and a friendship developed over the following years especially since 2002 when he became a part of the Hackney based artist community in which we all now live. Gustav was present at a research meeting we hosted in 2011 at our space in Hackney, which included conversation around the re-imagining of Event One, the first exhibition by the Computer Arts Society (CAS) in 1969 at the RCA, London. One of Gustav’s important yet unrealized projects Five Screens with Computer was proposed for Event One. CAS has proved to be remarkably prescient in recognising the long-term impact that the computer would have on society, and it is significant that Gustav, as a representative of the 60’s avant-garde was the inaugural editor of PAGE, the CAS journal.  Thinking about his early involvement with computers in art, his auto-destructive manifesto and commitment to concepts of emptiness prompted the idea for the Null Object project, and soon after the meeting we asked Gustav if he would be a central participant in the work.

 Collaboration appears to be central to your work, what was it like to collaborate with Gustav Metzger? We wanted to explore the concept of ‘nothing’ as a productive category and asked Gustav to participate in the work as a ‘neurophysiological trigger’, proposing a central but passive role. We connected him, over several sessions in the studio, to a digital EEG machine, while in the act of attempting to think about nothing. On the surface he appeared to be completely passive, but the notion of passivity is questionable here. Internally he was producing brain signals as a kind of residue from the struggle to cognitively disengage; our setup allowed us to capture these signals and to mobilize them in a stream of production via interaction with our analysis software and database. In effect, Gustav’s willful participation created existence out of absence in the form of a virtual positive object (pictured in this blog), which we used to create the voidance in the block of Portland stone. There was an appreciation that this exploration of making within the context of the information age and the economy of attention, was resonant with Gustav’s historic body of work around destruction and creativity and the impact of science and technology on society.

What is a Null Object? Coming from computer programming, the null object is essentially a paradox, a nothing, which is a something. The concept of the null object is useful to programmers because it does nothing and has no default behaviour, but can be referenced and made to stand in for other things.

 The installation utilises data collected from hundreds of participants over many years, could you briefly describe the different stages of this artwork including its latest manifestation at the Ruskin Gallery. Null Object used the “Looking at Primitives” database to generate the Positive Object which in turn created the void in the stone, the Null Object. The database was made with the help of numerous willing participants in a variety of venues from 1999-2012, in the UK, Europe and USA. The database contains 3d primitive shapes, used in the construction of a series of random-dot autostereograms alongside participants’ EEG files recorded whilst perceiving the 3d shapes within the autostereograms. A Science Museum Big Ideas commission in 2005, led to a further conceptual development to integrate architectural principles into the project software to generate a building – a Thought Pavilion.  It was proposed to produce objects as building components via a plaster based 3d printing technology; each object constituting a building block within a larger accumulated architecture. To date Thought Pavilion remains an unrealized project. The idea had been that Thought Pavilion would employ an additive manufacturing process, but with Gustav as a central participant, there was a new context, allowing for the imagining of a subtractive process, an excavation or voidance, connecting the concepts of the threshold of thought with the removal of material.

 I was really interested in how the installation contrasts the immediacy of technological time with that of geological time, was this the reason behind your choice of material- Portland stone? Because we were working with evanescent material and manufacturing technique that would happen over a period of days, we decided to juxtapose this with something born from a geological timescale. The collision of timescales, materials and processes manifested for us an expression of contemporary, ecological anxiety. We decided to use Portland Roach, a relatively hard stone full of fossils; the tiny voids were set against the large, manufactured central void created from Gustav’s neurophysiological signals. Further to the final choice of material, we liked the associations that the Portland, a form of limestone, continued to create for us: it has been used to build notable buildings of authority; it was used in an early stone carving by Gustav Metzger–a reclining figure clearly inspired by Henry Moore, Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein; seminal cultural artifacts from prehistory were created from the same kind of limestone.

“[…] like those time-factored notations inscribed on stone, antler, bone, or ivory, shining electronic images continue to trace a route of evanescence on an increasingly thinner support.” (Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects).

 The accompanying film for the installation describes your ‘poetic application of technology’ including electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings and 3D printing. Do you find these mediums inspiring or is there an ambivalence going on, particularly in the context of Metzger’s activism? The neurophysiological responses and geometric information contained within the database and its interaction with Gustav’s brainwave data produced instructions for an industrial robot to create a sculpture. In effect, a solid block of stone has been rendered hollow as a consequence of an artist thinking about nothing. Because of a paradoxical humour that runs through the work this sounds like a technologically enabled magic trick, drawing on the scientific study of illusions that suggests the brain generates what it perceives, unless we make strong efforts to the contrary. We are in fact making reference to the New Scientist, September 2000 which announced the immanent arrival of 3d printing on its front cover with the line: Imagine an Object and it will appear. We had been working with digital biomonitors and software for some time when we saw the possibility of hooking these digital devices up and literally bringing an object into existence through some kind of brainwave analysis. Mindful of the neurobiologist, William Calvin’s recognition that the science and technology of mind may move far more quickly then we can create consensus for; creating another level of stratification between “The Enhanced and The Rest”, we became interested in the ethics around this kind of augmentation. As a projection of a technological future, the work demonstrates ambivalence, sitting between a kind of techno optimism, and a post-human nightmare. It could go either way.

Why did you choose to make a work centered around a void, thinking about ‘nothing’? Simply because it is such an elementary and simple idea, yet at the same time elusive, paradoxical–verging on fraudulent. “How can we get hold of the immaterial, how can we push it around, how can it be pushed? This is what it is talking about, the immaterial, the fantasy. It is all a fantasy: just take one pull at reality, and the whole thing collapses. Add something to it, and it is another world.” (Gustav Metzger, 2013)

In 2014 Kettle’s Yard will stage a solo exhibition of Metzger’s work, what do you think makes his work relevant to contemporary audiences? In the context of contemporary society that seems to go along with whatever gets thrown at it, avoiding horrific narratives through acts of distraction and denial, Gustav Metzger is an anti-establishmentarian who has produced powerful words and images of dissent. His body of work is just as relevant today because of its intensive engagement with history, its critique of capitalist consumer society and of science and technology.

Don’t miss ‘Null Object: Gustav Metzger thinks about nothing’ at the Ruskin Gallery until 23 January