A multi-authored word composition from Cambridge University Library

"Cambridge University Library is a world-class academic as well as legal deposit library, keeping one copy of every book published in the British Isles, building a powerhouse of knowledge. However, the library did not allow entry to female undergraduates on the same terms as men until 1923, some fifty years after the first women had joined the University. The library's industrial scale building by Giles Gilbert Scott literally and metaphorically towers over the city. ‘Powerhouse’ aims to to capture something of what it feels like to enter this building, playfully investigating the drifts, vagaries and specificities of language, gender, position, knowledge, identity and the workings of democracy, and how some of these concepts might function in this most hallowed, but privileged and contested, architectural space." (Bettina Furnée)

Powerhouse Live

As part of an artist's residency at Kettle's Yard, Bettina Furnée staged an 8 week continuous word association game at Cambridge University Library during Full Easter term 2008. The game started off on Tuesday 22nd April with a single first word 'powerhouse' on display in the entrance hall of the library, recorded by time-lapse photography. Every day between 11-12am, six library users or staff were asked by Furnée to respond with the first word which came to mind, to be displayed next (and so on). During any other time of the day further word associations to the latest word were submitted via this website, linked to the University Library homepage. The most frequently submitted response was displayed in the library at set intervals. Thus around ten new word associations were displayed each day.

This website documents the project by way of a word association index and contributions.‘Powerhouse’ also exists as a set of posters and a time-lapse film Powerhouse (22 mins. 2008) with a spoken word sound track (see 'links' on the right).

All words were colour coded by gender and by origin. A website entry could not be submitted without choosing female/male fields. A single word or concept was required. Multiple submissions made within a short period of time were considered as single entries. Offensive words, or words not in the spirit of the game, such as personal messages, were not displayed in the library, but were indexed. A list of 32 'banned words' or slurs (the usual suspects) was subject to censure from the start.

Individual submission times at the library:
Monday-Saturday: between 11am-12noon (at 10 mins. intervals)

On-line polling times were:
Monday-Friday: 7am, 10am, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm BST
Saturday: 7am, 10am, 3pm, 6pm BST
Sunday: 9pm BST

Colour code:
Words submitted at the library: Male= red, Female=Yellow
Words originating on-line: Male= Green, Female= Amber, Equal gender= Striped

Powerhouse to Albatross

Over 8 weeks a chain of 483 words was displayed above the door in the entrance hall of the library. More than half of these words were word associations submitted individually - onsite - by library users or staff, and the rest constituted the dominant (the most frequently submitted) responses from multiple submissions made online. The individual responses were on display for ten minutes each, whilst web responses were up for 3 hours at a time, or over the course of a night or Sunday, when the library was closed.

Out of a total of 7236 submissions, 3688 were unique words. Of these 483 words were displayed as the word association chain in the library.

The words most frequently displayed in the library were: House, Mouse and Play (4 times each), followed by Books, Cheese, Happy, Control, Power and Sad (3 times each).

The words most frequently submitted were Aardvark (30 entries, displayed twice) and House (29 entries, displayed 4 times).

Of all entries 61% were coded female, and 39% coded male, as identified by players submitting their word online.

Of individual entries in the library 48% were coded female, and 52% coded male, as identified by the pollster.

Of the displayed words 54% are coded female, 38% male and 8% was submitted in equal numbers for each gender.

For further data counts and lists see:


Bettina Furnée is a visual artist based in Cambridge, and studio artist at Wysing Arts Centre. Her site-specific and text-based practice includes installation, print, moving image, performance and public art. See: http://bettinafurnee.co.uk/

Her work features wordplay, text and sound, absurdity, the everyday, slippage, displacement and fear of no-return. She often collaborates with artists, writers, musicians and audiences on longer-term projects and public art schemes.

She has been commissioned extensively, exhibited in solo and group shows, and awarded residencies and grants in support of self-initiated projects. She toured collaborative and participatory choral performance work Even You Song in 2019, installed Reality Rules ‘Rules For A Fair Society’ in Augmented Reality on Parkers Piece in Cambridge in 2012, and her large-scale environmental project If Ever You're In The Area took place at two arts venues and coastal locations in Suffolk and Essex during 2005-06.

'Powerhouse' resulted from selection for 'Space for 10', a national professional development programme led by the Arthouse, Wakefield. This 'Space for 10' residency was hosted during Easter term 2008 by Kettle's Yard and Hughes Hall in Cambridge.


This project has involved the participation and skills of many people. First of all I would like to thank the Cambridge University Library Syndicate for granting their permission for this project to be held. Katy Woods at The Arthouse, Elizabeth Fisher at Kettle's Yard and Sue Mehrer at the University Library have generously given their time, advice and support to make this project possible. I have had the benefit of professional advice and support from Professor John Newling and Duncan Higgins at Nottingham Trent University. I gratefully acknowledge the expertise and sheer hard work (under time pressure) of Dylan Banarse, for the technical development and camera setup, and Paul Allitt, for the website design.
Without your help this project would not have been possible.

THANK YOU mostly to the players for contributing their words!

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