Placed Upon The Horizon
Commissioning Agent: South Lanarkshire Council.
Site: Dispersed site.
Funded with help from: The National Lottery; Millennium Commission; East Kilbride Arts Centre; South Lanarkshire Council.
Description: Collaborative work with Niall Macdonald. 28 interviews conducted with individuals professionally engaged with the field of Public Art – artists, educators, commissioners, project managers, students etc. These interviews were transcribed, edited, and collected into the book Placed Upon the Horizon printed and published by South Lanarkshire Council. Half the printed copies were distributed through the SLC as a piece of civic literature (during a proposed re-evaluation period of the council’s Public Arts Strategy), while the other half were distributed by the artists. All contributors to the work received a signed copy of the completed book.
Materials: Published book, ISBN 10 0-9553127-0-1 ; 356 pages; soft back.
Duration: permanent work.
Extract from abstract to Working in Public seminar series:
Placed Upon The Horizon is published book that is itself a permanent public artwork. The book comprised 28 interviews with individuals engaged with the field of public / socially inclusive practice in various capacities (artists, commissioners, educators, thinkers etc etc). By engaging these individuals in conversation and re-presenting their – often contradictory - views on a parallel platform, the work hoped to offer insight into the variety of contemporary practice.
The book became a catalyst for critique and debate, and a number of distinct questions emerged from the work:
- Why do the definitions and language of specialisms differ, and what are the implications of that in term of communication as well as discourse?
- Do we need a new model to chart difference as well as similarity across the board, and, if so, what might this be?
- How can a ‘multiplicity of understandings’ be used to chart a multiplicity of needs?
- How has the changing understanding of ‘community’ – from a series of homogenised groups with internally shared desires, priorities and economies to a post post-modern conception of a series of interconnected moments within the diaspora – affected our understanding of ‘the public’ and, by implication, our understanding of public practice?
Practice or Research?
Placed Upon The Horizon occupies the unusual position of being conceived and produced as an artwork, but having an additional (and continuing) ‘afterlife’ as a piece of critical research. The play between these two functions remains a subtle one, but the spaces between the identification of each can lead to a fruitful dialogue.
Key to understanding the work is consideration of the processes gone through in the process of production, including the editing of the work, and the degree of ‘self censorship’ to which individuals felt that they had to bow. Almost everyone (25 out of 28 participants) who contributed removed sensitive sections of their transcripts prior to publication.
The dissonance between the voices in the book clearly reflects the variety and complexity of the field. One central discussion therefore becomes the presence and articulacy of a ‘specialist language’ for public practice, and the implications of having multiple specialist languages within one field. Can the multiplicity of understandings of the field be used to chart a multiplicity of needs?
Perhaps at the core of the work as it existed in its final form, was the suggestion that as our understandings of ‘community’ and public shift to increasingly complex models, our perception of public practice must co-evolve. Lines between definitions must consistently challenge and break the rules if they are to stay relevant.
Does this mean we need a new model of practice to follow in these changing times? Only if we realise that to define it might be to render it obsolete.
link to: www.workinginpublicseminars.org
In the winter of 2005 we were commissioned to undertake research into a new permanent public artwork for South Lanarkshire, and as we did so our single black and white photocopy of Placed Upon The Horizon (Casting Shadows) by Lawrence Weiner became a strangely symbolic metaphor for our progress.
As a transient image with permanence of intent, the high contrast, badly folded silhouette of Vancouver Art Gallery’s neoclassical façade presented a point of ambivalent criticism. As a monolithic text, capitalised and weighty, Weiner’s single line defined an impossibly delicate moment; a question of reflexive poetry attached concretely to the institution.
As the A4 image became creased and blurred, increasingly dog-eared from marking pages, and finally bearing the garbled annotation of two hands and three pens, the gestural framing of the gallery space dissolved into the paper pulp of recycling and was lost; unintentionally but in a strange parallel with that nagging idea of charting a course but leaving the direction open
And so the image of Weiner’s phrase reappears as the title of the permanent work that evolved from that commission. Hovering between the optimistic and the esoteric, the cautious and the new, we stand towards the horizon and look out.
To re-understand the question of relation, of the activity occurring both within and between a number of alternate points on any given network, is an essentially human process. The onslaught of postmodernism has dissolved the notion of any singular body that can be fragmented, and so an evolution can be drawn from the post structural ideas of deconstruction, difference, and dissolution. Instead we are presented with a view of multiple microcosms, and a fractal structure wherein each alternate point contains within it infinitely smaller networks of its own, all of which still contain some trace of a relationship within the wider echo.
Theory is reflective, while conversation is active and in process. Conversation is a gesture towards the currency of Now. Speech is also a moment of alchemy, where, unlike the construction of a written text, ideas are live and unpredictable, meeting and augmenting in a hypothetical ether.***
A point of ineffable metamorphosis occurs at the transition between the oral and the written. Translation becomes a negative space of quandary as language somehow jettisons fluidity, subjectivity and inflection, and receives instead truth, permanence , and authorship. Once language has been curtailed into the written word it is more durable, but perhaps more culpable.
As a work, Placed Upon The Horizon allows a single moment within a history to articulate itself through the spaces between the testimonies of individuals.
As a moment of criticism, the gesture reflects a complexity in practice and that which surrounds it. There is no answer, and no argument; rather, a diversity of aesthetic philosophies.
Placed Upon the Horizon contains the transcripts of 28 interviews conducted in January and February 2006, in which the artists spoke to a range of specialists whose interests or agendas touch upon the field of public art. These interviews were recorded, transcribed, and edited into a series of ‘portraits’ where the representation is somewhere between the artist and the sitter. As moments of collaboration, the texts and the gesture of their construction, collection, and dissemination will remain as a permanent work.
Ruth Barker and Niall Macdonald, Glasgow, March 2006.
nb: the following text is copyright David Harding
The ‘Artist Placement Group’, founded by John Latham and Barbara Stevini in the late sixties, developed a very particular way for artists to engage in non-art settings by organising placements for artists in institutions ranging from sea, rail, and bus companies to civil service departments. The key premise, which guided the process of making art out of, or in, these placements, was the APG maxim, the context is half the work. This was a crucial and enormously influential attitude for artists to adopt in positioning themselves in relation to a host community. Further Steveni, instead of waiting to be offered commissions for APG, would actively seek them in settings which she felt would be most productive. One of the most successful was Latham’s six-month placement in 1974 at the then centre of government in Scotland, the Scottish Office. Another crucial aspect of APG practice and process was the ‘Open Brief’. This part of the process has almost been forgotten by those who have come after, but to APG it was crucial to the production of, in artistic terms, successful work. A host setting and the artist agreed that the first period of the Placement would be an ‘open’ period after which the artist would present the proposal. If both parties agreed the placement would continue. If there was no agreement, the Placement would cease at that point. One can see immediately the value of such a process, for often artists’ commissions are circumscribed by tight and limiting briefs. Much important contemporary public art practice has been transient and temporary. The power of an image or idea that is seen or experienced for a limited period can remain embedded in memory. The residue remains as documentation which can be called upon to reinforce the work in the collective memory. In this respect the art of idea, conceptualism, may have more to say about art and the city than the art of objects. However, the art of the object placed in the urban townscape remains important. The way our towns look and feel cannot simply be left to the planner, architect and engineer. Public art has an important role to play in this. To paraphrase a preface to Michel de Certeau’s essay, ‘Walking in the City’, public art gives to walking that extra meaning and makes it different to the official, from the business of life, in the way that poetry is different from a planning manual. It slows down the pace and increases perception. It grants to the twentieth century urban experience a kind of drifting and the glamour that Walter Benjamin found in the nineteenth century “leisured observer”. Everyday life has a special value when it takes place in the gaps of the larger power structures.1 In a very public way, public art can enrich a city, reinforce its culture, encourage risk, represent diversity, give voice to the unsung and allow us to remember.
1. I have no reference for the original text
Danny Holcroft is a contemporary artist living and working in Glasgow. Since graduating from the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School Art, he has exhibited nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include projects at the VCA (Victoria College of Art) Melbourne, and the Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery in Freemantle, Western Australia. Danny’s work was represented at the 2004 Glasgow Art Fair and the 2004 Waygood International Art Fayre, while his book A&B (what you doin’) published by Trajectory, was launched in the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Art) Glasgow in 2005. He is currently an Artistic Advisor and Project Manager for E m e r g e D.
Danny Holcroft I recently carried out a process-based work as part of the Shift Festival in Leeds City Centre. There I focussed on developing a process through which I could generate a number of works in sites throughout the city, all of which functioned at different levels because of the process. The piece comprised a half hour walk in a randomly determined direction each day, at the end of which I stopped to sketch whatever I found myself looking at. Once I’d completed the drawing, I made a sculptural work in that location using whatever material was available within the site to build a structure or make some kind of physical intervention that I then left in the space. That concluded the process for that day and I’d repeat the formula the day after.
Niall Macdonald Did that piece of work develop from a particular interest you had in developing work in the public realm?
DH I wanted to set myself a parameter or structure that I could then involve myself in and continue to work through. The work for Shift became about the removal of conscious decision making, through which I followed an externalised framework to allow the work to ‘arrive’. I was more like a cog in a system which removed any pressure to produce a resolved or autonomous sculpture because I couldn’t predetermine exactly where I’d end up, where the site would be, and so what materials I’d have to work with.
Ruth Barker How did you think about the way that the work would be accessed either by an art audience or more public audience?
DH As an artist you’re always thinking about what or how your work is going to communicate, but I didn’t intend to assert a particular personal or political opinion onto the viewer.
The work had a lot of different ways into it. One way was that some people would simply see me wandering round the city every day and would perhaps wonder what I was doing or where I was going, when in fact I was going no-where. While I was walking I noted down everything that I saw in notebooks as a kind of commentary – mundane things like ‘woman walks by with plastic bags’ or ‘sale in Dixon’s window’. So people may have been aware of that first stage in my daily process or they may have seen me at the next stage, sitting in a doorway drawing a picture. They may have even noticed me carrying out the final stage each day where I was maybe trying to balance a stick on top of a bollard, and then place a piece of paper on top of that.
After I had gone through this process I re-presented the documentation – the lists, the drawings, the photographs of the sculptures - back in a gallery space. That exhibition venue was actually an empty shop unit that members of the public could go into, and which was acting as a hub for all the ‘live’ activities that were happening over the festival.
I was very aware that there was an art audience as well as the chance audience, but I didn’t have motives to expose the mythical processes of art making. All I was doing was developing a way in which I was most comfortable producing work for that specific situation.
RB Did you leave the sculptural interventions in situ, or did you dismantle them?
DH I just left them there.
RB Does that mean that there was a third audience who wouldn’t have seen either the process or the re-contextualised documentation, but who just encountered the residue of the process?
DH The sculptures were subtle interventions into the everyday, which functioned similarly to the traffic cones you find on the heads of statues. If you read that gesture as a chance occurrence, you might laugh or you might not, but the object would enter your consciousness at some level before you walked on, following your day. You wouldn’t have to consciously deconstruct the juxtaposition in order for it to communicate. With the sculptures, I was trying to make gestures within the city environment that someone passing by might notice. Later, maybe after they’d gone home for tea, I imagined them sitting round the table or watching telly and saying to themselves I saw a piece of plastic wedged in a crack in the pavement to make an archway, and I have no idea what it was about.
NMD It seems that the narrative of hearing about your work becomes almost as important – or even more important - than the objects themselves. Do you feel that people narrating the discovery of an object allows the work to continue in another form?
DH That human element is quite crucial to me, in that people who saw the sculptural interventions knew that they were deliberate. From there it’s inevitable that a narrative becomes attached to the object as the viewer tried to explain or account for its presence. The sense I wanted to convey was one of inexplicable but essentially human behaviour within each site; a moment of human effort without any apparent aim.
I don’t know if I’d describe the work as particularly generous on my behalf, but it was an act to leave something free within the city, for people to do whatever they liked with. No-one had to pay for it, no-one had to look at it if they didn’t want to. The small scale was quite important, because I didn’t want the works to impose on the viewer in any way. People could easily walk past them and it was entirely their choice whether they wanted to ignore them or not.
NMD That piece in particular seems to come from a lineage of artists such as Richard Long who also perform actions, but the contrast is that your sculptural actions were made in very accessible urban sites, and existed simultaneously with the re-contextualised elements. Could you talk about the relationship between the different aspects of the work?
DH The different elements were all equally valid stages in one overall process.
In a way I took no responsibility for the sculptural works, simply leaving them where they were made. They were often very transient, blowing over and disappearing almost as soon as they were complete, but that wasn’t a problem for me. When I photographed them and then re-presented that image within a gallery context, I became interested in how that image was automatically framed as ‘Art’ by the new context. Much of that again is purely the viewer’s perception because there’s nothing inherent in gallery space itself that transforms objects, except for the presumption on the part of the person entering the space that everything in that room is ‘Art’.
NMD It’s interesting that you say that all the possible ways of seeing the work were equal. Was there a difference in the way that you’d approach what you might call a public audience, as opposed to a gallery audience, or is that a differentiation you don’t find important.
DH Every object that exists in the world communicates something, intentionally or unintentionally. People interpret or ‘read’ objects every day of their lives, and so everyone has the capacity to experience sculpture in some way, at some level. It’s impossible to make an object that doesn’t communicate anything.
In conceiving a piece of work for a non-gallery site, you work with the fact that your viewers aren’t necessarily going to read it as an artwork, unless it is framed as such by signage or media coverage. If these external cues are absent, then your work is simply another object in a whole world of objects, and it has to be able to function as such.
When work is sited in a gallery, the artist can make many more assumptions about the viewer, starting with the fact that this person is an individual who has gone to a gallery to see art. I know that that person may well have some notion already of what art is, simply because of the fact that they’ve chosen to enter this art-space. When I make gallery work, I’m very aware that the primary viewer-ship may already have prior experience of and opinions about, art.
RB Does that influence how you’d approach making a work? Do you adapt your practice to work in the public realm?
DH I don’t think so. Not really.
NMD It seems important that you treat both situations with an equal respect…
DH Yes, but there are also significant differences between them. Artists often bring their own baggage with them when they make public work, importing factors that may help or may hinder the final piece. There is also the notion of the public art ‘festival’ that seems to be very popular at the moment, but which brings with it a whole host of other issues. In that case, you have multiple public art pieces taking place simultaneously in a relatively small area, under one festival ‘umbrella’. That leads to a real division of audience between those who are aware of the festival context and may be trying to see all the works produced as part of it, and other individuals who are simply passing by and see the work as a chance encounter. The festival strategy in some ways removes the question of is it art? But I’m not sure that that’s always a good thing.
RB Why do you choose to site works in the public realm?
DH It’s much freer I suppose. I feel that the public realm leaves far more options open to me than would be available if I purely practiced in galleries. Gallery space is so charged with art history, with those centuries of objects being looked at and somehow articulated – all that is just gone when you work outside. You can be more spontaneous; not naïve, but definitely freer.
NMD As someone who studied on the Environmental Art course at GSA, how do you see any recent changes in public art practice, or in how public art practice is seen?
DH When I went though the Environmental Art course, I found the compulsory ‘public art projects’ that students you undertake each year to be quite problematic. I felt that students routinely manipulated ‘the public’ into being pieces of artwork, and I guess I felt that it was inappropriate to go out of the institution for a two-week period, interact with a section of the public, and then re-present your findings to a very exclusive art audience. At heart it’s an elitist question of the validity of incorporating ‘the public’ in a process that is only concluded back in the art-educational establishment, and I felt that it was exploitative. Perhaps the process I devised for Shift was a harder way of working, but I was a lot more comfortable performing this daily ritual that enabled me to produce objects in that specific urban context.
NMD The piece in the E m e r g e D vacant shopfront space in which you wrote your real-time observations onto a window was interesting in terms of action and representation, because the two things became one. The observation became the action, and then the action becomes the representation of the observation back to the people passing by. How do you feel that passers-by responded to that relay process?
DH I think people responded to that work much more positively than they would have done if the finished text had been presented in a gallery context, because of the very direct level of involvement. Passers-by could simultaneously witness the process and become part of it, which allowed a very clear access into the work. The viewers – the passers-by – became very literally part of the narrative of the work which was being put in front of them, and that led to a sense of investment.
The work was sited in an empty shop unit with a large ground-floor window facing out onto a street that is a main pedestrian and vehicular thoroughfare into the city centre of Glasgow. As people passed the space several times a day, they were able to see me working on the window inside the shop-space, and the piece developed in front of them.
I was writing my real-time observations of what was happening in front of me onto the window – in reverse so that it was legible from the outside. That let the viewers take ownership because I was actually describing what they were doing. There was also a very obvious labour to it that everyone can appreciate; you don’t need 4 years of art-school training to see the amount of writing that gone into it and go wow – that must’ve taken a while.
RB What was the significance of your decision to use text in that work?
DH Text definitely has an immediacy to it, which is very tempting to tap into. It’s very easy for a viewer to access. Text can be a real hook for a work, especially a work in the public realm.
There were lots of people who stopped in front of that work to read it, and I think it takes quite a lot to stop a person on that street because everyone’s either going home or to work. As an artist, if you want people to stop and look at your work – even for 30 seconds or so – you’ve got to have some kind a hook.
In that particular piece, individuals might see a phrase within the text as they were passing it, which they recognised as referring to something they themselves had just seen. As soon as they’ve had that moment of recognition then they can access the whole process, engage with it, and that’s another way in. Often people would start to read the top of the text first, which was where I’d started writing and so was the oldest part of the commentary. Perhaps they didn’t recognise at first that the work was ‘live’, until they reached the bottom of the script and realised what was going on because the things I was describing there were things that had been happening around them as they read. Then they could see the process as a whole, and could infer the ‘truth’ of the text at the top, even when they hadn’t seen those moments personally.
Peter McCaughey is an artist, teacher and in-betweener, who has exhibited mainly site-related and time specific works in the UK, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Belgium and France.
Peter is a part time lecturer/researcher in the Sculpture and Environmental Art Department of the Glasgow School of Art, and runs workshops in mapping strategies and public art practice in Bergen and Helsinki. He is a non-linear thinker, professional problem solver, and a poor time-keeper of unkempt appearance.
Peter tells lies as part of his practice, likes shoes, and people who feel the need to make art.
Peter McCaughey My name is Peter McCaughey and I am an artist, a teacher and a sort of ‘ideas generator’ or problem-solver; sometimes I’m gainfully employed in all 3 areas - sometimes all at the same time. I teach 3 days a week at Glasgow School of Art, and I exhibit work under my self-initiated practice, often working with site and time specificity.
I recently did a project for the Liverpool Biennale called The Futurist, which could be one example of that kind of self-initiated practice with a work that was situated in the Futurist Cinema, an abandoned cinema in the heart of Lime St in Liverpool. I usually raise the funding myself for these projects - sometimes with help from the arts council, sometimes not – and I often work with many other people to help me realise them, most of whom are paid very poorly or not at all, and so I often end up in debt through those types of projects.
Then there is the other thing that I do which is this ‘in-between’ space. I really don’t quite know what that is yet but recently it’s been working with engineers, designers, architects, on a couple of regeneration projects - one in Clydebank two years ago, and one in Stirling, which is currently ‘live’ and my head is full of that right now. In those projects I tend to get paid really well to work firstly as this ‘ideas generator’ and then to work closely alongside communities, civic or governmental bodies, or architecture practices, to draw out those issues and ideas for work.
Niall Macdonald Could you describe the project that you’re currently working on in Stirling?
PM The project that I’m doing there began a year ago. I got a phone call in February from a public arts officer in Stirling who asked whether I’d like to come to interview for an idea called Creative Spaces, devised, I think, by the public arts company Ginko, who are now based South of the Border, though they still have a presence in Scotland. Ginko does some good work in negotiating the public space on creative terms, and it’s run by a guy called Tom Littlewood, who’s an ex-landscape architect and quite sympathetic to the needs of artists and all the rest of it - a ‘broker’ in that sense.
I came in to Creative Spaces to generate ideas for 4 spaces within a river walk in an impoverished area of Stirling called Raploch, which is currently subject to huge ‘regeneration’ development to the tune of £120 million over ten years with 800 new houses and lots of work. I was brought in as an artist to think about these spaces along the river walk, I generated ideas that were then taken forward, and now we’re in the middle of delivering almost everything that we imagined.
So far it’s been a really enjoyable process excepting some difficulties that come from realising the complexity of the machinations of getting a thing to budget, to contract and in the same shape as it was tendered. That becomes a challenge because all sorts of people get involved who have a range of different agendas and so it’s hard to retain the key things about an idea.
NMD Were the changes that you put in place through that project interventions into aspects such as the topography, or more about bringing identifiable pieces of ‘artwork’ into the environment?
PM In the past I haven’t been the sort of artist who makes permanent works, and I’ve tended to work more often with transitory or fleeting moments that suggest a psychological resonance of things that are about to change. So for example in the Gorbals in Glasgow, I made a piece of work in relation to the demolition of the Queen Elizabeth Square tower blocks, which was imagined for a very particular time - the moment just after those tower blocks had been demolished. The work in a way was about phantom pain, the pain of phantom limbs, and was made for this single moment of dramatic change, which it revisited. The feelings of the people that had lived there were mixed, they were feeling and thinking in a very particularly focused way about this moment of change, this moment of loss within the community, and I wanted to respond to this.
The idea was to have an event that would happen ten hours after the demolition, which was extraordinarily difficult. There were ten synchronised video projections, which relayed information about the demolition and interviews with the community along with thoughts about all the vicissitudes in opinion about what the tower blocks were, what they’d been, and what was associated with them.
That has been the nature of the way I work in my self-initiated practice, but it so happens that the funding for the work I’m doing through Stirling is for permanence and visibility and duration, and while I think that that condition can sometimes lead to compromised thinking, I’m also very playful in the way that I approach these difficult opportunities - I love problem solving. I love the idea of solving the problem of how I might deal with this issue of time, because we can get very lazy about thinking that some things are time-specific and some things aren’t; arguably of course, nothing is permanent and so then we’re only talking about degrees of permanence.
I love the challenge of trying to make work that can be an ‘object’ but also bring the same sort of ideas that I might bring to more temporary works, so there is a bit of shifting actual things to the space. We’re making a very odd piece of urban furniture, which is a sort of viewpoint that one might get at a panoramic view or on the end of a pier. It’s uniquely designed, and will serve as a seat and as an object that will rotate in the landscape and provide a view over the Ochil hills and the path of the River Forth in this incredible scenery that’s in the immediate area of this housing estate in Raploch. The object is a physical construction, cast in a foundry and made from aluminium, and it will be ‘almost’ sculptural and almost functional, a bit utilitarian here and there but also odd, markedly odd. It’ll have a number of functions, in that as a psychological tool it’s maybe an object that challenges people who come to the space to re-appraise the idea of the area in which they live; there is a bit of siege mentality in the area and a huge fence that lines the river and blocks the view to all the hills beyond, and so the object challenges us to think beyond that fence.
So that would be one piece, but in another work I’m involved in at the moment, one of the elements is to plan a treasure hunt for 50 years in the future. I’m very interested in how public art - or any art – functions. ‘Function’ is a really dirty word in contemporary art practice, but the avenue for reflection on function allows us to deal with the very interesting layers of how work is received, how it lives over a period of time, how it dies, disappears, is destroyed, and all those interesting things that surround the work and the context by which it is made visible or engaged with.
Within all of that, I have to say that with my interest in function I am mindful of Hewitt and Jordan’s provocative statement that ‘The Economic Function of Public Art is to Increase the Value of Private Property’. There are those who would say that the sort of work that I’m doing in Raploch is acting as an agent of the government by providing a small plaster for a rift that’s caused by poor housing, poor education provision and lots of other things; that art is there to make people feel a little bit better about problems that have not actually been solved, and a form of misdirection - juggling that take people’s eyes off what is actually happening in an area. But although that be might a useful position from which to critique that project, I am just too optimistic actually. I don’t tend to be cynical by nature and I think that there is a degree of cynicism in the way that that practice might be branded.
I always see the possibility that we might do something differently – that we might actually fix things or improve things – and I look to what the Artist Placement Group did in the 70s with their pioneering model of the artist’s residency; I look at what happened when Ian Breakwell went into the dole office and re-imagined the way that dole was given out and actually came up with a better system, or when an artist went into a plastics company and invented the waterbed. I’m interested in how artists can re-invent the way that things operate within society, and then lobby for these things to be adopted at a really high level and taken seriously; not just to be the superficial band-aid over the deep rift.
We can really get to grips with these situations but to do that we really need great support right the way through a project, and I’ve been lucky enough in Stirling to have the support of a really open-minded project manager who has made a lot of difference in how the fantasy has become reality, as these ideas have been taken forward.
Ruth Barker In all of those works you’ve mentioned there is a very layered relationship between physical space and an imaginative or emotive or associative space in parallel to that; I wonder if that’s something you could talk a bit more about?
PM In terms of received history, there are a lot of ideas about testimony - from the Shoa in Amsterdam, which has an emphasis on the importance of tradition and lived history; to the current, almost ‘off-the-shelf’ practice within community art, where artists do reminiscence projects with the elderly. My interest lies in where those lived histories or reminiscences might clash with other kinds of history like the official histories or recorded histories or the sanctioned academic histories, and so where the oral clashes with the written history of an area.
I’ve just sent an email to a local historian in Raploch explaining why I might like to include some mistakes within the histories we’re re-encoding into a series of stones along a pathway. The pathway is a classic timeline in some ways, a very traditional idea in that kind of context, but I’m hoping to breath some life into the piece by lacing it with the inaccurate, the anecdotal, the misremembered and all those other ways that our brains actually function to process and retrieve information. By encoding this timeline with lived histories, which again is quite a classic approach, we can challenge who gets to write history and from what position, which again is quite a classic idea and a very well explored idea now, but when these ideas are well-tailored to a particular community then they become new ideas in those places, and they become relevant again.
RB Is there a relationship between that idea of the misremembered and the piece you made for Liverpool?
PM I’ve only realised over time that with a lot of the work I make in my own practice, it’s been very important for it to not to be classified as ‘art’. I’ve been really interested in this space where we experience before we define that experience, almost as if you could imagine a space before language. I almost want the work to inhabit the moment before the recognition, as if something seen out of the corner of an eye; the experience of something without the articulating of what it is.
In that way, the stuff that I’ve done in Liverpool, and in other projects, hasn’t always been viewed with the label of art or with the label of me as an artist attached to it; it’s stuff that happens in the street or is made visible in order for it to be perceived. That’s certainly related to the idea of received histories, but maybe in an even looser way in terms of how we experience it, and I never have any idea of what impact that kind of work has really. I make trailers for films that don’t exist, which I secrete into the cinema space between other trailers. I’ve made 6 of these now and the last one, Below Ground, circulated in the Odeon chain throughout the UK. Out-with getting to sit in the cinema to see them with some friends, I never really get to know about what people think about those works, and so I imagine how they are received instead.
One of the difficulties with public art practice is that funding has quite a lot of bureaucratic process around it, including the idea of monitoring and all the rest. I don’t tend to place an awful lot of faith in statistics, because the inherent paradoxes are flagged up by the fact that the ‘average’ man has got less than two legs. It’s very difficult to do a survey because even who does the survey and what language it’s in hugely skew the responses you’re going to get, although I do understand why it’s important for public art workers and public arts officers to have methodologies that they can apply to help them understand what’s happened with a work.
I realised after about twelve years of practice however, that maybe it is possible for me to make work with this invisible authorship, but also re-visit that afterwards to research what had happened and what it meant. A musician, Yorkie, who made work as part of the piece in Liverpool has a website and a blog site that has received all of this incredible feedback about the project and that was a real nourishment for me that I don’t often get with my practice. So maybe there are methods that I can use to chart reception and ways that I can think about that, as a simple step to realising that you can have your cake and eat it.
This is a very nascent field that we’re dealing with really. In terms of the Environmental Art course that I teach on, it’s only the 20th year of the course this year – we should be celebrating it actually – and that’s a very sort time for these ideas to be kicked about. The students do a public art project every year and the 2nd years were presenting their projects for the first time the other day, and so we had a debate about what does it mean to make public work? What actually is a regulated space? And I don’t really feel like I’ve got answers to any of these questions and so we are actively evolving our responses to them. Public art is a very interesting field because it is absolutely at the cutting edge of contemporary practice, and those other things that happen in art, those games about games within the gallery space, those are interesting but limited. Where it is really at its most critical and its most challenging is at this coalface of all these issues about how we deal with audiences and engage with these tricky commissions with their proviso’s and their agendas and their issues of semi-permanence (where permanence legally in the Art’s Council’s terms is 10 years). How we negotiate all those things and retain what’s valuable to us as artists is what’s exciting but is also what’s evolving all the time, and so as artists we’ve constantly got new things to think about all the time.
NMD Do you think that public art is at the cutting edge of practice because of the idea of function being attached to it?
PM Yes, and I’m mindful of Joe Kosuth in 1964 or 1966, at the cutting edge of that hugely influential and emerging field of conceptual art, asking himself the question of how to get beyond aesthetics and craft and address the dematerialised object. And he takes a photograph of a chair and he shows it with a real chair and a dictionary definition of a chair, but he’s not happy with that. 3 months after doing it, he feels that it’s still aestheticised and that it’s become a language in it’s own right and so asks how can he get beyond that and starts making billboard works - again the undeclared work. It’s a just a series of propositions posited in a public space, but he asks himself the question, What is it that is not art, that might be art? And I think that’s always an interesting question. The stuff that happens in the gallery and the museum immediately has the status of art conferred upon it. The stuff that frames itself in that way immediately claims and confers the space of art and is not immediately asking the audience that primary question. The stuff that dares to function in other ways – and it might be that it functions primarily by doing something else – sneaks its art-ness in by the back door, and that’s interesting to me and it touches on how I think of the - crossover - between my ‘private’ practice and my public practice in terms of that sort of thinking.
NMD Could you reflect further on that space you introduced earlier, when something is seen and not yet understood as ‘art’?
PM When I was a student I was taught by serialists, follows for Sol LeWitt et all, teaching at the art school in Belfast, and God bless them all, they got really me interested in the rigours of working through an idea in quite a serial way where one thing leads to another then another. I had been using a milk carton as a former for casting objects in, and one day I noticed that when the carton was opened out it made a white cross. On my way home, each time I saw a milk carton lying on the street I just opened it up and left it there, and I’d forgotten about his by the time I went to get the bus back to the art-school the next morning. So I was standing at the bus stop with an old guy and suddenly one of these white crosses blows by like a piece of tumble weed, blowing down the street, and I watched this guy engage with it and it was an incredible - the way that he stared at it, the way that he looked at it, the way that you could see that it troubled him as to what it might be and what it might mean.
I realised that’s what I wanted. I wanted that moment of reflection where a thing oscillates in it’s meaning so that it slips in your mind and creates growth in the part of your brain where curiosity resides; that’s what I want. And I wanted it for very political reasons at the time, growing up in the North of Ireland, because I thought that if that part of your brain could get a bit bigger, then the part which wants to categorise and to name and to know might be challenged. I really connected with that desire, growing up in a place where people’s ability to be so sure of themselves means that they can reap terrible havoc on each other because of the way things are named or pronounced. So it’s maybe the subject of my malaise, the one that I’m recovering from after 20 years, that I do associate the ephemeral and esoteric with hugely important lived human skills, and the space of that curiosity was seen in those white crosses.
I have an example of this on the documentation video of The Futurist, the piece of work I made in Liverpool, that literally stops people in their tracks. It was a projection onto a sheet of glass which sealed the foyer of the cinema, and which just reflected the cinema’s interior space. It was unattributed and it was accompanied on occasion by live performance from the bowels of the space that was projected onto the screen with a soundtrack, and the sound in particular would echo down Lime Street and draw people to the space where they would stop and look for a period of time. I secretly filmed these people and I now have footage of that same moment of pause and hesitation and turning away and looking back.
As an artist I’m particularly active within city spaces because I think that cities are particularly desensitising and de-humanising in terms of the way that we operate within them. We become the agents of all the things we’ve got to do, to get to A to B to C to D to E to F….. and so we are always on the move and we’re not really paying attention to either our own bodies and so, in Guy Debord’s terms, we are alienated living. I see that these moments, these pockets of activity, can maybe slow us down and create space for reflection and for, maybe, a form of ‘waking up ‘ up, as well. Which again is why I see the most esoteric as being deeply connected to politics; I’m not the sort of person who often makes overtly political work, but in my own odd way I do think of myself as being quite politicised in that way.
RB In your description of a moment that side-steps both a linguistic framework and a linguistic categorisation, do you feel that you’re describing a fundamental or primary property of visual practice as opposed to verbal structures - the ability to concretely move outside of what it is possible to articulate?
PM Yes, I think that’s true. It’s a bit like that wonderful word that circles round ideas of the sublime, the ineffable, which is one of my favourite words. I want to make a t-shirt that says “It’s FFFF-ing Ineffable!”, because the idea that we’ve got a word for a thing that can’t be put into words is quite a funny thing in itself.
I trust paradox actually, and I think that we should trust paradox and contradiction more that we do but when we live with art, we get very used to living with uncertainty and with not being sure, and that’s why I think that everyone should go to art school for at least a year to foster that personal relationship to uncertainty. But then again, art school itself is problematic because we are living through a time where more and more things are being mapped out through language for all the wrong reasons - from fear of litigation to concerns over health and safety to the cult of responsibility and how responsible we should be to each other. Sometimes the very best thinkers with the most positive motivations are making that happen, but we still end up with situations that are not the best situations in which to be creative, or to be public or to be part of society. You could even say that there is a war at the moment between words and images; perhaps between the way that we deal with words and the way that we deal with images. You know the problems that would come from trying to give someone instructions to safely boil a kettle; it would take three pages of text and then translated into how many different languages...?
We have a labyrinthine dilemma that has become almost a Borgesian or Kafkaesque space that’s perfect for bureaucracy to become rife – as in Mark E Smith’s Business School of Business School, the more administrators you have, the more administrators you need to administrate the administrators. That is not of course to say that administrators aren’t useful because if employed in the right way administrators can be fantastic agents within any creative industry, but at the same time it has to all be in balance. We have to understand the value of not speaking, and of silence and the ineffable, and the space where something doesn’t add up and cannot be monitored. And we need people right the way along the line to see that value, from the government ministers who decides what gets funded to the people who decide policy within the art schools, to the people who administrate, to the project managers; down the line people need to have a space of that in their heads so that they can defend it.
So there are interesting models like Nathan Coley’s Urban Sanctuary, a public artwork that was commissioned to be a fixed part of a building and ended up as a book that went into libraries. Or the whole damn practice of somebody like Rirkrit Tiravanija, who’s such an fascinating agent provocateur in his relationships with communities and the public, where the practice comes out of this great new phrase that sounds really interesting but that I know nothing about because I haven’t read the book yet – relational aesthetics – it’s the new buzz word and I really like it but I don’t know anything about it yet, or maybe I think I know loads about it, but I just haven’t read that text yet, but those are the very interesting areas for us to think about.
NMD How do you position your interest in the ineffable in relation to, for example, the Creative Spaces project where there is a definite managerial structure; is it a case of trying to break into that structure to allow for those more transient or esoteric processes?
PM It is, and in a funny way in the work in Stirling I’m concretising or naming the ineffable in a sense. In that moment of deciding to name the thing that is ineffable - Ruth what was it you were talking about the last time that we met?
RB I think I was talking about how if language can describe a complicated spaces that is between ideas, and so frame it, once framed that space is no longer a void but an ‘object’ that can be seen from the outside and interrogated, and then represented to someone else -
PM - and it then has a useful function as a tool for us to build with and on, and in that way I’m concretising some of these esoteric ideas in works like Map in Stirling. There I’m taking the idea of fostering a sense of curiosity and I’m imagining a way of building relationships with audiences that’s centred around secreting clues in a ‘treasure hunt’ designed for some time in the future.
As part of that I’d also like to insert the ISBN number of a book that has not yet been written within part of what is effectively a 1 metre - 1 kilometre scale map I’m building in the landscape. Within that map there will be a light work reflecting the line of the River Forth as it travels through the space, but there will also be pieces of information embedded in it, designed in such a way that people will visit these places in the future. It will almost becomes a Rosetta Stone of treasure hunts in the locality, and people will go there to receive the information about things secreted within this 80 kilometre landscape.
So Map will be a space for play that I’m hoping might operate partly like Jacquie Donachie’s discs in Darnley, which is a lovely piece and I’m really interested in her ideas about how we create the sense of game without making a specific game space. I’m interested in borrowing from that idea within this map work because it’s a space with 64 squares, as in chess and draughts, but also embeds ideas of many other games like ‘Peever’ - the local game where you run round a circle - and also this idea of a treasure hunt. I’m trying to layer the work in a way that concretes some of the abstracts into a number of specifics in such a way that the permutations almost become abstract themselves, because there are so many of them.
It’s like the difference between chess and art, in that although chess is a game of huge permutations, they are not infinite where as the permutations of art are. Which is why I think Duchamp actually did take time out to play chess, because it becomes very attractive – it has the closure that we don’t have within art; chess has a state of win, loose, or draw at the end of the day, and those things are somehow relevant to public art practice. It’s like you’re playing games within a set of codes and rules which are more akin to the chess situation rather than the art situation, because perhaps the permutations are limited, though vast.
Which is why I tend to call my role ‘creative consultant’ or ‘ideas generator’ or ‘community liaison’ because I’m not quite at the point of naming that practice as my artwork. Maybe that’s just a problem that I have and maybe I should be more courageous than that. I’m seeking advice, and maybe the people who will read these words can help us think about that and what that is. I mean, I’m happy with the idea of having different roles, and seeing those roles all under the umbrella of one practice, but I don’t really go the extreme with my teaching either, as Joseph Beuys might have done in saying that his teaching is his art work.
Maybe I should be doing that as well, because I can understand why he made the argument for that being the case. I think maybe that we limit ourselves through language; we’d be much more productive and much more energised and much less troubled if we’d relaxed and weren’t so anal about what we say was and wasn’t, we just put it all under our practice. Maybe we just need to find new names for things because within that there are ways for me to identify what’s problematic for myself, where a weakness maybe exists in my thinking – it’s possible that I’m still desiring the high ground of the sanctioned language of the Frieze art magazine. I do want to be in that high-art dialogue with my contemporaries and peers, talking about those wonderful esoteric and abstract nuances, but I also want to challenge myself to deliver on all those other levels as well; the pragmatics of teaching with the large class numbers and the idea of being a part-timer in full-time education with more and more administrative responsibilities; the idea of public art which is brokered with all those other people with vested interest involved. It’s certainly compromising but again, to reiterate, that is what I think makes the field cutting-edge.
I don’t think we can separate out that idea of impact between gallery and public space because that can be a bit of a red herring, but what can we say in that case that separates the person slaving in the studio and the person trying to engage and negotiate a work into existence? I bet it’s the amount of people you have in your head, I think everybody has someone in mind when they’re making a piece of work, I think every one has someone in mind when they’re brushing their teeth.
I really disagree with David Batchelor’s description of public art practice though, where he says basically that public art is a myth, or that the public is a myth and they don’t exist, you’re relationship is between yourself and the art and that’s it, and I would contrast that with what Suzy Gablik challenges us to think about, that in the Western World we are obsessed with individuation and seeing ourselves as separate from everything else. It feels to me like it’s a closer truth that we aren’t that separate and that our tendency to separate ourselves is arguably damaging in many ways. Everything that we do is informed by thoughts of others, and in that sense public art is perhaps only acknowledging that more clearly than work which seems to be about the relationship between one person and an object or a painting or a thing. In doing so public art is again at the cutting-edge theoretically an in terms of practice, and we are acknowledging the fact that we have responsibilities along with everything else.