Whilst the outcome for Love Ties was a major public art commission, I have long been fascinated with our relationship with space. I think this stems from having absolutely no sense of direction, which means I find negotiating spaces quite daunting. Below are some of my thoughts and ideas relating to our relationship with art and public spaces.
Every building and space we enter has sets of rules, some of which are easier to understand than others. Obviously, these rules are learn’t as we pass through the huge variety of spaces the world has to offer. This is perhaps why travelling can be stressful, where the signs and clues we read as to our expected behaviour, change. However it is not always abroad that a feeling of panic can overcome me. I remember when my youngest child was invited to a Brewster Inn birthday party aged about 4. I had never visited one of these pubs and was inundated by unknown rules and ways of behaving – your child needs a coloured vest, to take his shoes off, this space is for smokers and you can’t order at the bar here. The environment felt alien and I had a serious urge to flee. When though we visit a bank, it is fairly clear where we have to stand because of the barriers and service desks, which funnel us in to an orderly line. The sharp lines and muted interior decor, combined with the suited staff, are all visual clues as to how we are expected to behave. In contrast, the floppy rope barriers outside a night club allow us to form a much less orderly queue. The beat of the dance floor, the sparkling lights, the smells of smoke and alcohol all stir up our anticipation and much less sensible behaviour often ensues.
This all may seem fairly obvious, but understanding how we behave when faced with different sets of visual clues is imperative when thinking about Public Art. The rules of behaviour in a gallery are very different to those in a Hospital or Local Park. So too is our relationship with these different spaces. I believe Public art should not just have an aesthetic value, but also have a function. To identify what kinds of functions the art needs to have we need to understand how people feel about the space. The function of artwork in hospitals, may be to distract and calm patients, whereas the function of an artwork in a park maybe to create a less threatening space.
Relationship to School
When making work for schools, I have often thought about the somewhat negative relationship many of the kids I have worked with had with school. I wandered what would happen if I tried to get them to think in a different way – rather than seeing the school as an institution or a building I asked one group of Year Tens at a school in Stoke on Trent to imagine their school was a person. Not just any person, someone they had fallen head over heels in love with. The response was quite amusing, “Thats gonna kill us” was one comment I remember. The students worked with Creative Writer Maria Whatton to write Love Letters to their school and ended up producing some remarkably emotive texts which identified the reasons why their relationship was negative, but in a fairly positive way. I then visualised the texts in the context of their school.
Relationships, Engagement and Regeneration
I then started thinking about how this could be used for engagement and the regeneration of towns and cities. Love letters on the whole talk about the positives, they talk of aspirations, of dreams of what we want most in our lives. What might happen if this was applied in a Public Art Consultation. I wrote the following as part of a proposal for a regeneration scheme in Longton.
Longton, the first town of the potteries, the face of the Potteries, the first impression.
It was a shiny sunny day, excited and filled with anticipation you prepared for your first date. You look forward to what the day might bring, walking hand in hand, a picnic in the park, smelling the soft aroma of summer flowers?
You had never felt so exhilarated; the emotion this town was creating was breathtaking. After a long and languid lunch you wandered together into town. The buzz of Longton’s high street was thrilling you to the core. The intense feelings Longton provoked made you want to examine, linger, look closer and look longer, delve inside – crack open her pavement’s and get to know her essence. She shared her aspirations with you and together you drifted into your dreams.
It has been a week since that day; a week where concentration has become impossible, all you can think about is when you may meet again. Your longing for Longton is almost unbearable, you want to be back in her arms chatting so easily making plans for your futures – together you know you can have such an incredible life. You decide to write her a letter; a letter that can attempt to put into words how you feel, one that sets out your expectations for the future, one that explores your fantasies and describes your dreams.
Project Description – Approach
A series of dates with Longton will be held throughout the summer months. A variety of different cross-cultural community groups will come together to meet Longton as if on a first date. Picnics will take place; time will be spent in hidden or unexpected places. Some of these sessions will be filmed to create a film piece that reflects the ‘romantic’ nature of the project. Working with photography and creative writing, the participants will be asked to really explore the often-overlooked beauty that any town offers. For example a reflection in a raindrop, the curve of a wall, the textures of different surfaces. This exploration aims to set up a relationship between the participants and the town. The dates will culminate in ‘letter writing’ sessions, where participants will be given perfumes, writing paper rose petals etc and helped to write their letter to Longton. The aim of the letters will be to discover the overlooked parts of the town that participants have an affinity to and also identify some of the problems, but maybe more importantly to discover their dreams and aspirations for the future of the town.
Creating a Relationship with a Building
In 2004 I was commissioned by the Storey Institute (a Creative Industries Building) to create public art proposals for their refurbishment. I came up with two proposals both inspired by creating a relationship between the building and the visitor. The first I made as a short film of the proposal, which imagines the building as a person in love, responding to the visitor.
The second was also made as a film, which I no longer seem to have, although the still images are below. Standing Ovations and Private Views reference back to some of my very early work which looked at the relationship between an artwork and the viewer. I was immensely inspired by a fabulous installation in Liverpool dating back to 1992 by Artist Gary Hill called Tall Ships. The piece looks at the power of the viewer in art, making us question the subject of the artwork itself and creates an immense amount of self consciousness in the viewer.
Buildings such as the Storey Institute hold a particular fascination, buildings full of art, theatre, performance, puppetry and dance, creative industries in all formats. The viewer, and therefore the visitor to the Storey is fundamental to all these activities – does art exist if it is not seen – what is theatre with no audience? The proposed area of interest was therefore to transfer the focus of the artwork to the viewer. Imagine a space whereby the visitor receives a standing ovation a space where the viewer becomes the focus of a private view. The two pieces I proposed were designed to be back lit video projections positioned on the floor of the two entrances to the space. The first shows a marble floor slowly cracking open, below which, filmed from above, there are people at a Private View of an Art Exhibition. However, they are not looking at pictures on the walls, they chatter, sip wine and look up at the visitor, pointing. The second video again has the floor cracking open only this time again filmed from above, is a theatre audience giving the visitor a standing ovation.
A flicker of movement across the Marble Floor. As you enter The New Storey Institute, the floor beneath you begins to crack up. Below people point up, stare, look impressed, drink wine – A Private View it seems, with you as the main exhibit.
Leaving the building from the other exit, a similar experience, this time however the crowd applauds, shouts out praise, they stand and you receive what may be your first Standing Ovation.