Only Yourself To Blame: Barry Sykes


Barry Sykes’ performance lecture Only Yourself To Blame (2013) at ICIA, Bath.

Where Sykes offers his audience the choice of three possible pre-prepared but unscripted ‘talks’ and we choose the one about his pencil collection.

Here’s a short review I wrote in 2013 as part of my application as a participant on the Cornwall Workshop. As far as I can remember, this account refers to a performance by Barry Sykes’ at ICIA, Bath (where our new LOW PROFILE commission ‘Impromptu‘ opens next month).

Collection #7 - Barry Sykes’ souvenir pens and pencils on display at Extra Bones HQ (2013)
Collection #7 – Barry Sykes’ souvenir pens and pencils on display at Extra Bones HQ (2013)

In Only Yourself To Blame (2013), artist Barry Sykes offers his audience the choice of three possible pre-prepared but unscripted ‘talks’All I Can Find That I Have Done (detailing all 256 documented artworks made by the artist from GCSE to the present day), All About The Apocralypse (a run through of the month-long programme of hypothetical events initiated by the artist online at and All My Souvenir Pencils and Pens (an ad-hoc collection amassed by the artist since 2006). On the occasion that I saw the piece, the audience voted by show of hands for the latter.

Sykes dutifully loads up the corresponding Powerpoint presentation and begins (somewhat apologetically) on his task of introducing and detailing the provenance of each pen and pencil in the collection. On the face of it, this sounds like a tiresome and monotonous prospect, akin to the (now superseded) chore of leafing through the seemingly unending wallets of holiday photos presented excitedly by a loved-one, neighbour or colleague. You know that you will end up sitting through the experience, if only to remain polite, and as the title of Sykes’ work suggests, we, as the audience, only have ourselves to blame for choosing this particular presentation.

However, from the beginning there is something captivating about the delivery and presentation of a topic that could otherwise easily be dismissed as peripheral or minor. The collection of promotional and souvenir pens and pencils (now ordered by colour and photographed pinned to a baize board, parochial museum-style) has been growing slowly in a bright yellow ‘Lewisham’ mug in the artist’s studio over the last decade, laying semi-dormant while he wonders what exactly it is that is interesting about this disparate cluster of objects.

The examination of each pencil or pen leads to fresh insights such as a re-consideration of the impossibility of attempting to sum-up (or create a shorthand for) the incomprehensible human suffering of an event like the Holocaust in architecture, or a museum, or even in the abstracted logo applied to the pencil Sykes bought in the shop of the Jewish Museum Berlin, offered for sale as memento of his visit. As further examples from the collection are introduced, the potential of these curios for holding memory, experiences and associations with place, notions of institutional branding and the purpose of these pencils as keepsakes, revenue-streams and functional items are all deliberated on.

As I follow this extensive and expansive spiel, I start to wonder about how far removed the quintessentially British figure of the ‘anorak’ (someone with studious, obsessive, largely solitary interests) is from the activities, mindset and position of an artist. Each can take a seemingly unhealthy interest in their subject or preoccupation of choice, spending hours engrossed with an insatiable desire to know everything possible about it. Both groups tend to be judged as unconventional or outsiders and, of course, both like to meticulously note down carefully observed details in their notebooks. Unlike the anorak’s guarded, private and personal collecting, Sykes opens up his observation and analysis to the audience. As curator of this idiosyncratic collection, his intense caring ‘for’ and ‘about’ these overlooked or over-familiar elements of our everyday lives invests them with a greater value than they would usually hold. Similarly, the level of attention (and attending ‘to’) directed to these objects subjects them to a far greater scrutiny than their creators are likely to have applied in making them. This comes to the fore when Sykes speculates on the various design decisions made when applying Henry Moore’s signature to a pencil, the minimalist approach of Turner Contemporary’s branding or the application of the National Trust’s house-style to a pencil from the White Cliffs of Dover. Will drawing with a pencil imprinted with a famous signature inspire one to be a more competent artist? How does highly acclaimed mid-2000s brand identity compare with low-cost mid-1990s graphic design when both are stripped down to the basics of “logotype on pen”? How could simple, white, title case text on a dark green pencil hope to encapsulate the memory or experience of looking out across the English Channel from an iconic cliff face?

The frame of the ‘talk’ also double-codes the collection, the artist’s analysis and the cultural artefacts displayed, in Linda Hutcheon’s terms, simultaneously legitimizing and subverting what it parodies and pays homage to. It also allows these musings and workings-out to circulate within the artworld (as performance or artwork) while the subjects of the talk (the mug full pens and pencils) remain part of the circulation of objects in everyday life. Unlike the modernist ‘readymade’ or Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s notion of the post-modernist ‘already-made’, Sykes temporary commandeering of these souvenir items is a different type of ‘making’ – something that draws attention to the process of what is ‘made’ (mentally and manually) by each of us (artist and non-artist alike) on a daily basis.

You can see more of Barry Sykes’ back catalogue at & you can read more about The Cornwall Workshop on their website. At some point I will probably write more about Barry’s Powerpoint oeuvre (as I’ve seen quite a few of them now), but until then this one is here to remind me…

Rachel Dobbs is an artist an educator, currently based in Plymouth, UK. She is involved in researching and writing around ideas of dissemination (of contemporary arts practices) and examinations of things that may be over-looked, over-used or over-familiar. For more writing, take a look here…

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