Between 2003 and 2005, Ian Banks acted as the part-time 'Public Art and Architecture Officer' for Arts Council England, North West. During that time, he wrote a series of monthly public art articles for the North West regional publication of the RIBA, called 'Prospect NW' - and which was published by the Carnyx Group.
Selected Prospect NW articles by Ian Banks are included in a new A4 hardback publication 'Public Art Essays' published by Lulu online publishing - 31 pages with 21 articles written between 2003 - 2005 for the monthly architecture magazine for RIBA NW and published by the Carnyx Publishing Group.
Order online at Lulu (£11.92)
Above: Image of 'But is it Art' article from 2003 written for Prospect NW.
Below: A selection of articles extracted from Ian Banks monthly public art column in Prospect NW architectural magazine: www.prospectmagazine.com
Existencilism: A question of wanton vandalism or anti-establishment art attack? OCTOBER 2005
The guerrilla artist Banksy (no relation) was until recently most famous in art circles for depicting the Queen as a chimpanzee during her Golden Jubilee, and for creating the sleeve for Blur’s Think Tank album. Within the street-cred obsessed culture of urban Britain though, he is seen as the doyen of the stencil-graffiti Street Artist – where his fine art is more about creating humorously challenging agit-prop, whilst avoiding detection and ultimate arrest (Marxist ramblings of an artistic Citizen Smith meets the stealth of the Artful Dodger). As well as his prolific output of ephemeral art-crimes, including nine recent works that glimpsed the “other side” from the Palestinian perspective, onto Israel’s controversial West Bank barrier; his work has also recently moved into more physical intervention, through a surreptitiously-placed bronze satire of the Statue of Justice, as prostitute wearing FMB’s and suspender belt - sited illegally at the scene of a previous arrest, overlooking the Old Bailey.
The Oxford English dictionary defines a guerrilla as: ‘a member of a small independently acting group taking part in irregular fighting, especially against large regular forces’. The regular target for Bansy’s Underground Art, is as much the establishment of the art world itself as it is the conventional forces of law and order – as graphically illustrated when his recent art intervention on the steps of the Tate warned Turner Prize visitors to “Mind the Crap”. Other smuggled-in installations, have included a supposedly authentic cave painting of a man pushing a supermarket trolley, placed within the British Museum which went unnoticed for three days; as well as other bogus art works imported into Tate Britain and the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From October his exhibition entitled Crude Oils was shown at the Martyn Gayle gallery – a series of seminal paintings Banksy described as an "exhibition of remixed masterpieces, vandalised oil paintings and vermin"; including ironically (given recent press coverage on plagerism) a reworking of Jack Vettriano's The Singing Butler.
In 2004, Keep Britain Tidy criticised Manchester's Urbis museum as it hosted the largest UK exhibition of graffiti art ever held (ten of the world's best-known street artists were featured in Ill Communication II), saying it legitimised street crime and blighted our most needy areas. This summer, Keep Britain Tidy also published MP signatories of their ‘Zero Tolerance of Graffiti Campaign’, which included Tony Blair who was quoted saying, “Graffiti is not art. It’s crime”. Indeed, new measures in the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003’ have now come into force to tackle the perpetrators of all graffiti and clean up the environment. Under these revised laws, local authorities can now impose penalty notices for graffiti and fly-posting; and the measures will equip them with the tools they feel they need to deal with anti-social behaviour. Home Office Minister Hazel Blears believes graffiti is an eye-sore which blights communities: "It affects people's quality of life, increases fear of crime and reduces pride in a community. It also costs us all millions of pounds a year to clean-up - money which could be better spent on other valuable services." To practice what it preaches, the Home Office has even launched a 'Name that Tag' campaign in London, Liverpool and Manchester, offering a reward of £500 for information about prolific offenders; whilst under-16s are even banned now from buying aerosol paint cans altogether.
Unsurprisingly, Banksy’s stoic response is to maintain that any crime against property is not real crime. He states on his website that “People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access”. His iconoclastic crusade looks to break down divisions between artist and public and to encourage a subversive culture that calls for social change as a part of everyday life. This has a vaguely similar ring to it as the old Situationist International movement, the revolutionary alliance of artists that produced its own stencilled art (or Pochoir) explosion in France prior to the 1968 student uprising. The only difference here is the inherent humour with which many Banksy statements are made, and that (arguably) in New Labour as oppressor; he lacks a truly autocratic tyrant. Perhaps though, consumerism is the real dictator today, and we its selfish conspirators. Banksy has even turned down repeated Nike requests to commission stencilled adverts, preferring instead to work for the likes of Greenpeace. As Che Guevara-wannabe Wolfie Smith, cried out in his 1980 swansong, so it is that Banksy now seems to want to empower society through his own Popular Front – thereby giving back in the process, more ‘Power to the People’.
Cryptic Clues: Hidden gems of the everyday and the commonplace: SEPTEMBER 2005
To me previously, the art and appeal of bird watching was about as unfathomable as doing the cryptic crossword, in that both appeared undeterminable pastimes wasting valuable time rather than providing either basic leisure amenity, or whiling away moments of boredom. Interesting for me then, to recently discover that both activities had formed the centrepiece of a series of micro arts interventions, commissioned by Sandwell’s arts-in-regeneration flagship called THE pUBLIC - which looks to create temporary artworks for its recurring Platform project. Curated by Trevor Pitt, these occur all along the West Midlands Metro line running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
The work Looking for the Black Redstart was commissioned as part of Platform in June and was supported by the Metro, as well as Urban Fusion, Sandwell Valley RSPB and The Wildlife Trust. Part of this involved artist Clare Thornton leading local people on an ecological ramble along the Metro line, armed with binoculars, to carefully look again at their everyday surroundings and identify the rare wildlife they had perhaps previously overlooked – and in particular the increasingly rare Black Redstart. Thornton produced a range of supplementary sound recordings, photographs, billboards and textile pieces as a result of the events. Although seriously in decline, and on the RSPB’s Amber List of endangered species, the endearing Black Redstart seems to actively favour the Birmingham and the Black Country area, having its preferred nesting sites within urban wastelands and old buildings, as well as along canals and railway lines. Admirably, this small robin-sized bird, actually prefers to live part of its year at the heart of our industrial and urban centres, migrating from our coasts to spend its summers nesting there.
To compliment this, artist and poet Alec Finlay’s publication Crossword (Snowhill-St George’s) is a poetic Word Map of that same journey and takes the form of a cryptic crossword, with each clue and answer relating to a station, stop or place along the transit route between two industrial centres. Accompanying the publication, four specially designed posters were sited in advertising spaces along the route that also held clues to the crossword. It was produced by Finlay working in collaboration with a local historian and The Guardian crossword setter Sandy Balfour, to collect words and clues relevant to a particular area, and which were available on the Metro trains throughout September.
THE pUBLIC (previously Jubilee Arts and more recently c/PLEX) has collectively over 30 years experience of what it describes as “inspirational and creative projects focusing on issues of importance to local communities including health, regeneration and education”. During this time, the organisation has worked with over 850 different local groups, reaching over 200,000 people. In 2006, THE pUBLIC will reach a major watershed, with the launch of its (reportedly) £30 million West Bromwich headquarters, designed by Alsop Architects. As one would perhaps expect, the building is a boldly inspiring and eccentric vision (which is hoped will eventually become the catalyst for further regeneration at grassroots level) combining arts, technology, learning and business development. One hopes though, that retained at the very heart of all this will still be their simple philosophy of valuing and facilitating modest, yet challenging, arts practice within the continually regenerating thing called ‘community’. As the Regeneration Game gathers momentum to force ever more high profile good practice and design onto our evolving communities, perhaps it is worth remembering that, whilst change is often good, not all that is good needs to be imported and spoon-fed to us - and certainly ‘big is not always best’. Tucked away in our everyday surroundings, often where they are least expected, are dormant clues just waiting to uncover a richer, more cryptic poetry. We may have to eke these out on our own a little, but perhaps a deeper sense of achievement and liberation comes from this more solitary and laborious process.
Northern Lights: Illumination of a Scottish Cultural Landscape: AUGUST 2005
If one was to read of mass midnight pilgrimages, throughout August and September, to experience a sensory atmospheric phenomenon on the mountains of the misty Isle of Skye, then any amateur astronomer might be forgiven for thinking that the Aurora Borealis had temporarily been pushed to more southern latitudes. If there is any bad news here, it is that (as far as I am aware) there are no solar flare-ups to be seen from Skye. The good news though, is that one should still consider heading to the Highlands and Islands anyway - to experience at first hand a hugely ambitious but very temporary installation of some other Northern Lights (through the UK’s biggest ever light sculpture, with integrated Gaelic-inspired live music, poetry and performance) all around the mystical Old Man of Storr - the highest point on a long ridge of mountains that form the backbone of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula (and the huge Jurassic monolith recently described as the ultimate in ‘Geographical Viagra’).
Recreational drugs were not required to conceive this eccentric brainchild of Angus Farquhar, Creative Director of Glasgow-based environmental arts organisation NVA. However, the installation - titled The Storr: Unfolding Landscape – clearly has the potential to become a truly mind-enhancing experience, through participation in a cultural tableau on an epic scale. NVA’s previous major work, a smaller Millennium landscape animation called The Path at Glen Lyon in Perthshire, certainly had a profound effect on those who experienced it in 2000. It also brought a number of offers to recreate the event in other areas of Scotland. If it hadn’t been Skye, it is reported that NVA could have taken their pick from Lewis, Uist or the Cairngorms. The Storr project itself is breathtakingly bold in terms of its artistic ambition, scale, cost and logistics - or indeed whatever else you want to quantify it by. Costing nearly £1 million and being 4 years in the making, the project will run over the course of only 42-nights – that’s six nights a week over 7 weeks, weather permitting from 1st August – with an estimated 10,000 people experiencing it at a cost of £25 per head. Included in the ticket price is transport from Portree or Staffin; a book containing photographs and a series of essays. Attendees on the night will go off in groups of about 100 (with one leader per 25) on a midnight climb up 1500 feet going around The Old Man of Storr and the high cliffs above Coire Faion – in all, taking about two hours. The walk will be accompanied by an ambient soundtrack to enhance the sounds of the forest and includes Bronze Age horns, recordings of Norwegian composer Geir Jenssen and Raasay-born poet Sorley MacLean. One sampled extract comes from MacLean’s poem, The Cuillin, where he describes the very same ascent as being like a “stripping away.” On the descent, the audience will see a Gaelic singer perform and will look across the Sound of Raasay, to where a string of headland lights will mimic the constellations.
As if that alone was not enough to contend with, the project has also been set up as a the ultimate exemplar of eco-tourism – and this in an area already widely regarded as Skye’s most prominent Site of Special Scientific Interest anyway. As such, the project has had to consider a wealth of exhaustive environmental considerations - for example, working in consultation with Scottish National Heritage, NVA’s planning application ran to some 300 pages alone. The Storr will attempt to highlight political issues, such as land ownership, the right of access and the need for conservation. It will also set down a marker for the future interpretation of landscape and demonstrate how sound and lighting equipment can be run using renewable energy sources. As such, every speaker and spotlight is powered using batteries whose energy source is a nearby hydro-electric system. Marking the route are 4500 motorway reflective strips, which will reflect tiny spotlights that each person will have strapped to their heads – as people are seen as contributing to the work through the simple act of walking. The only loser it seems here are the infamously murderous Skye midges, who are to be cunningly side-tracked by an additional £25,000 worth of kit called Midge Magnets.
The Storr is a flagship project for something called Highland 2007, which itself evolved from the failed Highland bid for EU Capital of Culture in 2008. To reach its audience, Highland 2007 will create a year-long programme of events that builds upon and develops a cultural infrastructure and legacy for the Highlands. A couple of these strands are called Re-interpretation of Traditional Icons and The Highlands as an Inspirational Place, and this is apparently where The Storr gathers its purpose to create a new culture, meaning and mythology.
Another bold example of commissioning cultural lighting has also recently been launched in Scotland, where, on the back of a long-running city lighting strategy, Glasgow City Council has unveiled their latest lighting installation on the banks of the River Clyde - which bathes colour up onto the underside of the Kingston Bridge. The £300,000 project, funded by the City Council, is the work of New York artist Leni Schwendinger of Light Projects Ltd, and architect Ian Alexander of JM Architects. A lighting sequence has a refined palette selection and highly orchestrated programming to allow for 144 sequences of unique colour mixes - which will be linked to the actual traffic patterns as data flows through sensors to the lighting control board. The city began its lighting strategy in 2002 and has now allocated more than £5m up to 2007, under its highly innovative City of Light strategy. Such has been the success of this Strategy that the City is now going to host Radiance: The Glasgow Festival of Light at the end of November 2005 – showcasing international commissions in light - as also occur in Turin and Lyon.
All three cities are initiators of LUCI (Lighting Urban Community International), an organisation for like-minded cities interested in light inaugurated three years ago. The association mandate is simply to help ensure that light becomes a major tool for urban life, architecture and development in the future. Angus Farquhar, of Glasgow’s NVA, has come to prefer more of a language of visual arts to describe NVA’s own lighting philosophy, and talks of it “working with atmosphere” on The Storr to articulate the character of a place. His next project, he has revealed, will be in the Arctic Circle - where maybe there is still a chance of a biblical scale intervention with the Aurora after all.
Northern Souls: Explorations of Cultural Identity Up North: JULY 2005
Our constant desire for travel is apparently not just the legacy of our new Easyjet lifestyle and armchair-tourism with Michael Palin. Author Alaine de Botton illustrated in his 2002 book The Art of Travel, 1 that through the great travel experiences of such writers and artists, as Van Gogh, Ruskin and Wordsworth (in Provence, Venice and the Lake District respectively), that we travel to experience at first hand, beautiful art and architecture or great landscapes and culture. Using reference to the same artists, however, de Botton also argued there was an underlying need for this travel – an idealised longing for movement and change. In the spirit of bringing this ‘Mountain to Mohammed’, in 20 years time, there may technically be little need for us northerners to wish to travel anywhere – and everyone may wish to come here instead. Big plans are being made for the North, through the long-term implementation of the Northern Way 2 regeneration programme - with its self-styled ‘paradigm shift’ of delivering change through major economic, infrastructural, social and cultural initiatives. Set in motion in February 2004, the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asked the three northern Regional Development Agencies to help unlock the potential for faster economic growth and bridge the £29 billion output gap with the rest of the UK. Allied to this, is the potential Capital of Culture legacy of Liverpool 2008, 3 as well as the related programmes of the Newcastle-Gateshead Culture 10, 4 Bradford’s 2020 Vision 5 and others. As a small but important component in helping realise this bigger picture, the combined northern Cultural Consortia, are currently working alongside the three Arts Council of England regional offices. They have been tasked with researching the benefits of, and delivering a plan for, a pan-regional public art strategy – with a complex but ambitious brief that seeks to identify both the likelihood of resulting inward investment; contributions to the positive profile of the North through tourism and marketing gains; as well as comparing cultural options of added investment made to existing art exemplars, against selective new commissioning.
Of course, the North already has significant assets and advantages as a location anyway, and so to what degree can a pan-regional public arts strategy help advance its role as a destination for more inward investment and tourism? To explore the range of creative ideas and research currently available across the northern scene, is to sense immediately both the huge potential as well as the inherent problems attached to applying any over-arching cultural strategy here. After all, part of the strength of the North comes in the historic paradox of collective unity set against inter-region competitiveness, and this essence should never (and probably could never) be changed – as it lies at the very heart of an almost indefinable spirit of ‘Northerness’. However, such thinking in itself is plainly not enough, as the whole ethos of the Northern Way has been established to reinforce this strength of identity, whilst at the same time invigorating what is seen as a generally under-performing northern image and economy. Art and culture clearly has an integral role to play within the overall masterplan, but, though it must be responsive to hard economic realities, artistic innovation must not be shackled with too restrictive an economic end-game. After all, Angel of the North 6 may now be the darling of the huge regeneration industry, but it was originally conceived as a radical and challenging artistic commission. Indeed, no one could imagine Anthony Gormley seeing Another Place, 7 his most recent sculpture installed on Sefton beach in Merseyside (consisting of 100 life-size figures, gazing out to sea, and at varying stages of emergence from the sand or tide), as primarily an economic driver and marketing tool. So, where exactly do economics end and culture begin? Art plainly needs be engaged on real terms, but must be allowed to explore and find its own unique and unpredictable levels – to attract, engage, inform, question, delight and even challenge northern inhabitants and visitors (real and virtual). In addition, the brief for the arts need not restrict itself to only the marketing elements of the Northern Way but could and should explore a wider remit relating to real economic and social issues – and one where a romantic aspiration is retained as the crucial ingredient.
The forthcoming show at TATE Britain, A Picture of Britain 8 explores how the British landscape has inspired artists for three hundred years, and examines how their work has in turn influenced our view of it. The exhibition goes on a journey across the country, to focus on a broad range of responses, whilst examining ideas about travel, nationhood, industrialisation and notions of the rural. The section called The Romantic North - Man, Nature and Society, looks to the North, with its human themes of discovery of nature, and the industrial city – a contrast personified by the exhibited Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland by Turner, and Lowry’s Industrial Landscape. A continuation on that road to discovery (or rediscovery) comes in the BBC’s related public competition to electronically submit the best digital picture of Britain’s 21st century rural, urban and human landscape. 9 Also strangely sympathetic to this, and curated by Grizedale Arts in Cumbria, is a madly eccentric contemporary programme called Romantic Detachment 10 - which looks at how European Romanticism relates to the wider world, as well as our grass roots and its continued impact on our music, underclass culture and folk traditions. Arguably, this provides us with one of the best clues to our true northern soul.
1. www.alaindebotton.com/travel 2. www.thenorthernway.co.uk 3. www.liverpool08.com 4. www.culture10.com
5. www.bradford2020.com 6. www.antonygormley.com 7. www.seftoncoast.org.uk/index_news.html
8. www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/apictureofbritain 9. www.bbc.co.uk/arts/apictureofbritain/gallery
The Game of Life: The art of virtual gaming in the public realm: MAY 2005
An obscure exhibition named ‘Wireless Connectivity World’ (WiCon)1 was in London between 24th – 25th May, and looked at the current cutting-edge of our mobile solutions to demonstrate the huge future potential for wireless networking - in particular through the ciphered badges (to those of us still uninitiated anyway) of such mysterious terms as Bluetooth, WiFi, WiMax and ZigBee. Whilst design and masterplanning in the public realm is not particularly renowned for operating at the extremes of information technology, at least Virtual Reality modelling (a bi product of often military or gaming software) is beginning to rapidly replace its far more pedestrian 3D CAD architectural cousin in terms of truly visioning urban environments more quickly and effectively – and as a result, the ‘jockeys’ skilled to use these tools are getting ever younger and from ever more diverse backgrounds. Some might see this as a threat to the cloistered professional circles, but many outsiders see it as helping create a catalyst for new directions - plugging in architecture both literally and virtually to the ever-shifting ‘real world’. Of course, art more than architecture is already well established in embracing such new media, and one has only to look at the brilliant emerging programmes of NW organisations like FACT2 in Liverpool and Folly3 in Lancaster to see that their work already has major overlapping interests with architecture, the public realm and the communities inhabiting them. These organisations use their creative programmes and networks to continually invade others territory (invited or otherwise), to explore and push at the preconceptions that can too often restrict innovation and change.
One programme that could never be criticised of restricting its future creative options, is the one initiated by Preston City Council, working in conjunction with the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and the University of Central Lancashire, and called Here + Now. Here is a 3-year vehicle to create what the City and partners see as “temporary art for a transitional city”, and which is itself planned to act as a lead-in to the eventual comprehensive redevelopment of the Tythebarn district of the city by masterplanner Terry Farrell - working in conjunction with developers Grosvenor. The Here + Now initiative is tasked with the highly ambitious brief of raising the level of debate surrounding the art in public places, and supporting a city planning programme to increase the ambitions for quality design in architecture and the public realm throughout. Its creative direction will be determined by joint lead artists Alfredo Jaar4 and Charles Quick5 - working in a unique transatlantic collaboration. A modest but essential part of the Here + Now programme has been the early establishment of a monthly series of free public lectures on innovative public art practice, called ‘Speaking of Art’.6 These lectures act as both a public introduction to the diversity of work out there, and as a practical guide to future options the City and its planning professionals might like to implement.
The April lecture, (sponsored by Prospect NW), featured Taylor Nuttall, CEO of Folly, and new media artist Maria N Stukoff7 and explored their radical thoughts on the wireless city as a concept, as well as the virtual means by which the tools and technology could be used to dynamically engage both design professionals and social communities with it interactively. Radical practice seems to abound in these areas and many exemplar gaming precedents were introduced to push the horizon (and blow the mind) yet further, including: Blast Theory’s8, live and interactive city exploratory; Urban Tapestries9, social and cultural investigation; IPerG’s 10, socially adaptable games; Go-Game’s11, urban adventures; and artist Jen Southern’s12 interests in portable and GPS technologies. The title for Maria N Stukoff’s own research PhD is titled ‘Public Art as a Physical Gaming Environment’, and is currently playing a significant practical part in the development of the ‘Digital Corridor’ project along Manchester’s Oxford Road. Manchester City Council’s Digital Development Agency (MDDA)13 have sponsored her PhD, and consequently, there are likely to be some very interesting potential cross-over developing out of this hugely enlightened funding – to explore the linkage between urban design, public access, gaming, interactivity and what is termed “playing the city”. The research is intended to assist MDDA in obtaining a workable strategy for Manchester City’s ‘Future City’ concept, which itself aspires to bring new media technologies (specifically Bluetooth wireless technology) into the entire public domain - to offer long-term infrastructures for artists, councils, urban planners and businesses alike; to develop a creative digital corridor for new audiences and inner city social neighbourhoods; and (perhaps most interestingly of all) to enable us to experience our city hereafter as one huge interactive game. Bring it on.
Elemental Art: Harmonic Collaborations of Art in the Environment: APRIL 2005
The ultimate example of artists engaged to work directly with our natural environment comes within the annual ‘Artists and Writers Programme’ jointly sponsored by the British Antarctic Survey and Arts Council England (1), with two artist-in-residence places made available each year during the Antarctic summer. One eminent recipient in 2000 was the Orkney-based composer Peter Maxwell Davies who was commissioned jointly by the Philharmonic Orchestra and the British Antarctic Survey to commemorate the (then) 50th anniversary of the writing of ‘Sinfonia Antarctica’ by Vaughan Williams. This month sees Maxwell Davis conducting his resultant ‘Antarctic Symphony’ at the Royal Festival Hall (30th April) to mark both his forthcoming 70th birthday, and the complimentary exhibition of his work running at the South Bank Centre (2).
Unless you live somewhere equally as remote as Antarctica, you should not have failed to notice that the Kyoto Protocol (3), which aims to curb the air pollution blamed for global warming, is in the news again after coming into force in February. The accord now requires its 141 signatory countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012 – though ironically of course, these countries exclude USA, the world's top polluter. The principles of good environmental husbandry however, are not just restricted to the political agreements of G8 Statesmen and other world players – as under the Agenda 21 code, it is the simple responsibility of everyone to try to “think locally but act globally”. This philosophy works like the infamous El-Niño effect caused by the simultaneous fluttering of millions of butterfly wings, and aspires to beat the changes holistically through a mass of tiny programmes of community engagement – be those communities publicly or professionally based.
With the same modest spirit, art can also contribute to our environmental agendas, and indeed has evolved into a much more active mechanism to achieve this, from the passive origins of ‘tree-hugging’ environmental artists working in a natural media, with a hand-crafted aesthetic. Even the arts ethos of die-hard environmental groups such as Groundwork (4) and Sustrans (5) has moved a long way, and now sees them engaging with many aspects of new commissioning practice - often more about exploring new media and temporary work than it is about creating permanence through community environmental sculpture and land art. With strong links existing between ecological issues and new technologies, it is not surprising that environmentally conscious artists are increasingly looking to harness these rich sources of reference for their own art practice. For example, a recent work by lighting designer Jason Bruges (6) created four giant 12m-high towers made from litmus paper that could sense and respond to a variety of stimuli, such as daylight, wind and tides between the marsh areas and outer London suburbs along the A13 corridor.
In addition, as the monitoring and management of our environment becomes ever-more research dependent, then artists also seek to try and keep pace with this through their own exploration of new development approaches, and this is evident in the increasingly popularity of a specialist post graduate course like the MA in Bioclimatic Design or Art in Environment, at MIRIAD (7) (Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art & Design). Here is a cross-disciplinary course for would-be environmental artists, addressing the theoretical and practical issues relating to the growing field of art and the environment, and deliberately aimed at individuals from a wide range of creative backgrounds. The stated purpose of the programme is to: “foster creative and lateral thinking on a wide range of issues directly related to the environment, whilst exploring the value of diversity and the importance of both tradition and experimentation”. Of course, such exploratory approaches, essential in the historical advancement of our understanding of science, are now essential within developmental environmental arts practice itself – and particularly in the fuzzy cross-over where the two worlds collide. Indeed, to help in the facilitation of this, key Sci-Art organisations like NESTA (8) (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) exist to engage both proactively and reactively with new thinking. NESTA currently run a number of award programmes, which aims to support “everyone from inventors and engineers to filmmakers and musicians” and these share the simple common aim, of wanting to back people of exceptional talent and imagination. One such NESTA award was for the eccentric ‘High Tide Organ’ installed on Blackpool Promenade in 2003, and created by artist-inventor Liam Curtin with collaborator John Gooding. The artwork directly employs the movement of the waves around every high tide; allowing air through embedded pipes in the sea wall to sound a beautiful 50-foot sculptural organ mounted on the promenade above; thus creating an eerily random soundscape, calibrated to the harmonic series, and resonant of whale-songs and distorted fog horns – or what Liam Curtin likes to refer to as a “musical manifestation of the sea”. The work is part of a much larger art-on-the-prom programme called ‘The Great Promenade Show’ (9) implemented at Blackpool as one happy bi-product of the towns continuing sea-defence improvements, and containing several environmentally referenced artworks. However, not conceived itself as an overtly ecological statement, High Tide Organ illustrates the point well, that such art does not always need to attempt to be 'green and worthy' to be classed as sympathetic to the cause, and can remind us all daily of our on-going debt to our natural world by simply highlighting the marvel of our everyday surroundings through pure artistic celebration.
Raising the Standard: A little bird tells us of hope, faith and spirituality in public art: MARCH 2005
The artist as celebrity is a major business today. In the field of public art, it can sometimes appear to eclipse the actual importance and quality of artwork produced, particularly where regeneration and marketing bodies gloat over the relative size and cost of their commissions; as well as the column inches and media slots attained. Thus, public art is often used as a means to an end; a vehicle to help achieve a nirvana of regenerative attainment, through the brokering in of cultural capital.
An Arts Council event, created in conjunction with BBC, addressed this point in February, by debating the thorny issue of “can you buy culture?” Based in part at Liverpool’s FACT 1 Centre, Art05 2 was the latest in a series of annual showcases to celebrate the best North West arts and cultural practitioners, whilst also this year, querying the role of the arts as ‘saviour of our cities.’ Given the location, the tone of the event was unsurprisingly influenced by the approaching Capital of Culture in 2008.3 Chaired by Alan Yentob, Director of Creativity at BBC, an eminent arts panel, that included the sculptor Richard Wentworth, 4 debated with an invited specialist audience. In one notable exchange, Wentworth worried about the pitfalls of only creating “a shinier world for shiny people”, through the gentrification of urban environments. He felt that the historic city and its communities were inextricably woven-in like tweed, and a true beauty came from this eclectic mix, not in the ghetto creation of artificial urban quarters.
In the light of the theme of this discussion, it is perhaps not unsurprising that the flagship for Art05 should have comprised its very own public artwork. Unveiled by Tracey Emin, 5 ‘Roman Standard’ is her first work for the public realm, and is sited in front of the classical portico of ‘The Oratory’ beside Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Costing a reported £60,000 and commissioned directly by the BBC (in the same spirit they say, as Eric Gill being commissioned for his famous Prospero and Ariel sculptures at Broadcasting House in 1933), the work portrays a tiny contemporary Liverbird sat atop a thin 4-metre metal pole. The work is classed as temporary as current planning permissions extend only until 2008, though of course, much depends on public reaction (and any attempted thefts) as to whether the work will remain longer. Interestingly, both the original Liverbird and the Roman Empire used the same masculine power symbol of the eagle; but much like our modern-day Liverbird, Emin’s tiny bronze has morphed into a more mythical creature 6 (she states that it is not based on any particular species), and relates to her long-standing interest in birds representing freedom as “angels of the earth”. She sees her new ‘Roman Standard’ as alluding to the inner strength of femininity, being a delicate counterfoil to what she sees as the “oppressive and dark” masculine symbols of power seen in much public art today. The work aspires to appear and then disappear, and whilst not dominating, becoming a symbol for “hope, faith and spirituality.”
The reasons for Emin to site her piece, referencing neo-Roman architecture, behind the gates of John Foster's miniature Greek Oratory are unclear. Perhaps it is just happy synchronicity then, that only a few hundred metres along the aptly named Hope Street, also sits the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, which is also in the advanced stages of realising a spiritual work of public art by another major female artist. Here, in the new Cathedral Garden (adjacent to the newly created ceremonial access, architect Sir Frederick Gibberd always dreamt of), sits the future site for a beautifully integrated work by artist Susanna Heron 7. Created in conjunction with architectural practice Hogben & Hale, it will comprise a circular stone platform set within the existing garden lawn, and is a simple design of hard black granite and soft white limestone, to evoke a reflective pool. Heron’s work has studiously evolved out of an introspective client and site consideration. Central to it all though, is the moment between “body and mind, mind and spirit, memory and ghost, past and future, eye and seeing, seeing and understanding.” In contrast, the Emin piece perhaps represents a more spontaneous interpretation, appearing to respond intuitively to both to an immediate religious setting and the wider cultural context. For different reason, the beauty and delicacy of both works shines through, and certainly both share the potential of becoming real hidden gems within the city; to be discovered only through serendipitous accident. At the unveiling of ‘Roman Standard’, Emin talked of the potential “magic and alchemy” 8 of her public artwork, and arguably this sums up the quintessential element of what both these artworks set out to achieve. Though the jury is still out, public feedback on both pieces will hopefully reinforce the view that a masculine, ‘big is beautiful’ approach, is not always necessarily best; and that sometimes a more sensitive, feminine philosophy of ‘less is more’ can help create the elixir for a truer and more sustainable cultural regeneration for the city.
Here and Now: Relativity in art, space and time: FEBRUARY 2005
Cheshire-born artist Cornelia Parker has materialised a lot from the ether recently. She has had one of her sculptural installations shown virtually in the retrospectives of the Still Life/Object/Real Life suite at Tate Modern1; got castaway treatment on Desert Island Discs; and featured again on Radio 4 as part of the celebrations on the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s great Relativity breakthrough2. Parker’s reconsideration of Einstein’s discoveries, examined her own seminal work Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) – which consisted of a reconstructed view of an ‘exploded’ garden shed (filled with her collected ephemera). The shed was deliberately detonated by her at an army ordnance range, with the ‘shrapnel’ then painstakingly gathered up, logged and reinstated in a gallery – where they were represented in a suspended microsecond of explosive annihilation. She also described the magnified focus applied in another work, exploring Einstein’s blackboard theorems, scribbled live in his famous lecture from his ‘miracle year’ of 1905. This photographic work consisted of huge microscopic blowups, resembling snow-capped peaks and scaly moonscapes, and revealed hidden depths to his passionate chalkings – illustrating a parallel universe in microcosm. There is no doubt 100 years on, that Einstein is still very much in the public consciousness. Indeed, on the radio programme, the university’s Museum of History of Science3 still boasted of having this original chalked-upon blackboard, and proudly listed it as being their most popular exhibit. Public awareness as to the theoretical existence of variable space-time is now rooted in our conscious, as are vague concepts of huge scale spectrums ranging from sub-atomic particles through to expanding universes.
Unlike Parker’s gallery-based work, the micro and macro potential for both space and time-based art experienced in the public realm remains under explored and public art is often visualised as being only permanent work that is referenced to a human scale and a specific time and physical locality. In contrast, the exploratory process and practice of time-based and live artforms demand different approaches to this. Such temporal art embraces practice that can be experimental, is often high risk (possibly controversial) and addresses the specifics of space, place, time and audience. The work is usually more process than product driven, and is firmly rooted in ideas of presence. Innovative organisations like Hull Time Based Arts4 and the Live Art Development Agency5 forever push at these expanding boundaries, although a large percentage of their work (and others like them) is unfortunately still gallery or festival based. The excellent live art of x.trax6, Manchester’s biennial street art festival is a case in point. Produced in conjunction with Manchester International Arts7, the programme has now converted to a biennial format from June 2005, due to a lack of strategic funding priority.
Time is a factor, brokered into many art-in-regeneration schemes, where 20-year plans are the norm, but perversely, instantaneous quick-wins through permanent artistic interventions are often demanded at the outset. Lynford Christie, famously talked of his 100m gold medal win in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic final, being crafted in his instantaneous reaction to the starters pistol with an explosion from the blocks – what he called having to move on the “B of the bang”. It is ironic that such a momentary reaction to grasp victory or taste defeat follows a lifetime of dedication and discipline. The designer Thomas Heatherwick’s analogy to that same explosive spark of ambition was glimpsed at the recent public launch of his extraordinary sculpture of the same name, by the City of Manchester Stadium. Ironic also here is the fact that whilst originally intended to be used as a visual metaphor to mark the launch of Manchester’s impressive Commonwealth Games in the summer of 2002, it should end up taking a further two and a half years to complete, because of technical complexities and delays in securing funding. It is now marketed as an iconic retrospective, marking completion of phase one on the long journey to regenerate East Manchester. The project eventually climaxed on a rainy night in January with a pyrotechnical show created by live arts group Walk the Plank8 – who were also incidentally responsible for delivering the fabulous arts spectacle at the closing ceremony of the games.
Whilst work such as Parker’s ‘Cold, Dark Matter’ and Heatherwick’s ‘B of the Bang’ freeze an explosive catalytic moment in time and place, around them, time of course moves on relentlessly. Physical environments change and inhabiting communities react to it, and it is precisely this very process that needs further creative exploration and adjustment. Whilst second-rate art is often used as a means of paying lip service to community liaison, what is really needed is a bold vision to commit to a fuller programme of engaging communities through visionary artistic residencies and temporary installations. These could act as ‘action research’ to help evolve innovative artistic approaches and a community mindset, which in turn can help inform and influence the physical regeneration happening around them – Lets call it art with the big-bang effect.
Art in the fast lane: A roadmap to cultural happiness: JANUARY 2005
The beat novel ‘On the Road’, by Jack Kerouac, traced his surreal trip along the white lines of some of the most evocative continental highways in existence. For some reason, only an American route seems confident in providing such rich pickings for an art form, with novels, music and road movies being the most consistently used genres. But what of our more tame North West motorways? Will there ever be a place for cult arts to engage with the road-enraged daily life of our M60 Orbital car park, the M6 traffic cone maze at Thelwall, or our death defying super highway between Supercities, the M62?
The nearest thing to iconic art glimpsed from our motorways and trunk roads at the moment, tends to come from engineered past jewels – such as in the brilliant, though criminally neglected, ‘Pennine Tower Restaurant’ of the Lancaster M6 Forton Services;1 the Bladerunner-like dystopia seen at Stanlow Oil Refinery after dark on the M56; and in the elegant Runcorn-Widnes Bridge on the A533 approach. All undoubtedly act as navigational markers and symbolise the creative spirit of our gritty northern enterprise, but all lack cultural reference to our contemporary lives today. There are of course an increasing number of new public art gateways to be glimpsed from North West approach roads, but none have so far got even close in quality to the examples given above, or indeed are a patch on Gateshead’s ‘Angel of the North’. Some art cynics say that artist Anthony Gormley 2 has a lot to answer for. They feel he unleashed a dangerous new trend in roadside public art, when his rusty archangel appeared before the gathered throng at the Tyneside border on the A1 in 1998. Initial controversy quickly became a political dream, as high art also simultaneously turned regional gateway, tourism-marketing brand and regeneration icon. The precedent was so successful and so powerful that it quickly became the dread of many public art officers and agencies world-wide, as copycat creatives working on the design of any major developmental scheme, each sought out the “next angel” – only bigger and better and (preferably) less expensive.
Recently, the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister launched something it calls ‘The Northern Way’ 3 , which is an attempt to “capitalise on the North's new-found confidence and energy and to speed up the rate of change”. Can the northern culture of inter-regional competitiveness and stereotyping, ever allow such a coming-together of ‘northernness’? The combined visionaries of North West Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward and One North East certainly think so, and also appear to believe that art has a critical role to play on that journey. As a result, the beginnings of a “Welcome to the North” pan-regional public art programme is currently being coordinated by the three regional Cultural Consortiums. That this programme can also trace its origins back to the success of Gormley’s Angel is of course not in doubt. However, valuable lessons are being learnt in northern public art at the moment, and a parallel philosophy of ‘less is more’ is emerging as regeneration bodies increasingly consult with arts professionals and appreciate that there are many levels to exemplar public art practice these days. The point is that, like vehicular design, not all public art has to be big, expensive or designer-label to become a truly iconic classic. In similar fashion, we need to be challenged by a cultural equivalent to the concept Smart Car, not the out-of-touch utopia of another Sinclair C5.
There are of course, road-inspired programmes for public art already underway in the UK. Two notable ones are the fully integrated A13 Artscape,4 devised for the Barking and Dagenham Trunk Road in 1996, and the M8 Art Project,5 established in 1992 along the Glasgow and Edinburgh motorway. The A13 Artscape involves a rolling programme of crossover art disciplines and was originally coordinated by lead artist/architect Tom de Paor working in conjunction with the Working pArts consultancy. Recent projects include Thomas Heatherwick’s roundabouts at Goresbrook. The M8 Art Trust working with the Arts in Partnership agency, have also commissioned some exceptional work over the years including Dalziel + Scullion’s fantastic sound sculpture for stationary motorists called ‘The Horn’ at West Lothian and David Mach’s ‘Big Heids’ sculptures situated at the Eurocentral site at Mossend.
Currently, my personal favourite work of motorway car-culture can be seen in the brilliantly (but of course illegal) proliferation of guerrilla art in the “Gouranga” signs seen all over northern motorway bridges and structures. Not the company logo from a bridge maintenance firm, or even a marketing ploy from ‘Grand Theft Auto’ makers (referring to the ‘Gouranga Bonus' - where Hare Krishna monks are run down for extra points) but an altruistically inane crusade of Krishna devotees to spread the word for “Be Happy” amongst the car driving proletariat. The word has simply to be chanted out loud in order to make everything better and, as life is the ultimate long-distance journey and too much stress en route is bad for us, it has got to be worth the shout.
Porth Wen Silica Brickworks: My Favourite Building: Prospect NW DECEMBER 2004
It was a slight problem originally, justifying to myself the choice of derelict Victorian brickworks as my all-time favourite building in the region. Porth Wen Brickworks is after all only a piece of derelict industrial archaeology; is built eclectically without any known architectural pedigree; and is based out of the strict North West anyway - on the Welsh island of Anglesey. In the absence of any formal rules of engagement, I quickly formulated my reasoning (convincing myself at least) for taking valuable time off to spend a day photographing this neglected but well-loved old friend. Based close to the Wylfa nuclear power station on the islands rugged north coast, and adjacent to the island’s excellent Mancunian-run vineyard (I kid you not!), the last time anyone even thought about celebrating architecture around here was when Glenys Kinnock half-heartedly tried to champion the combined talents of Parys Mountain copper mine and Amlwch port in the first series of BBC’s Restoration. No surprise that this optimistically grand vision of a Welsh Eden Project sank without trace, but perhaps to improve her chances, she should have also included the romantically picturesque Porth Wen, just along the coast.
Here between 1850 and 1914, silica ore was mined by hand from open cast pits on the now National Trust headland, to be transported down to the coast via a funicular railway – where it was chipped and processed down a series of staggered terraces and chutes, using gravity to move it along production stages. At the cliff bottom, bricks were moulded, dried and then fired in the three circular beehive kilns to be shipped off from the adjacent quay. The raw material used had such a high silica content that it produced hard bricks of great resistance to high temperature, and were used both in the steel industry as in the construction of Liverpool docks. Rejects were simply recycled or used for internal building purposes, and of course many have now ended up in the sea, where, over time they have been ground back to almost the original state from which they came. Today, it is easy to find on the adjoining beaches, small wall sections with clearly defined brick and mortar outlines, eroded into beautifully textured boulders. Sitting almost imperceptibly amongst the natural slate and stone shingle on the beaches, these brick boulders have subtly changed the surrounding beach hue to compliment the background buildings. One hundred years and the whole thing has nearly gone around full circle, as now most of the landmark structures (quay walls, terraces, chimneys, beehive kilns and quayside buildings) grimly hang in there, against the continued ravages of time, wind and tide.
Each visit begins with a nervous approach along a coastal walk, not knowing whether the jagged brickwork scars and severe subsidence have finally given way, and it picks up when a gradually emerging panorama reveals everything is still where it was last time (and also hopefully that no other visitors intrude on my pilgrimage). I don’t think there is any one reason for this obsessive passion for the old ruin. Perhaps it is that I chose to site my architectural degree scheme here back in 1984, or that I seem to have made almost annual visits to it ever since. Maybe it is the gained and lasting appreciation, in the process of degree research, of JM Richard’s theory of Functional Tradition meeting John Piper’s gorgeously abstract paintings of Pleasing Decay, from post-war Architectural Review’s - I can’t quite put my finger on it. Somehow I think it is much more elemental than this, and is related to the bold yet simple beauty in its organic composition; the visual scars of time and nature on its rural-industrial face; as well as just the immense history built into the very bricks and stones. Definitely favourite of all though, are two key elements: One is a simply designed two-storey building, built right out onto the edges of two quayside walls – where, with a spring tide and a northerly wind, the swell continues to smash waves right over the fully-windowed (though now glassless) façade. The other, is a bold abutment of the main quay and harbour walls running smack into the most perfect naturally-formed rock arch as you could ever find. Both examples illustrate fundamental principles right out of Gordon Cullen’s still relevant The Concise Townscape, in what he termed avoiding “prissy suburbanism” through an “intrusion into the wilderness without vulgarity.” What are the chances of ever building right ‘on-the-edge’ in such natural or historic beauty-spots today? I think we all know the answer to that one.
Collective Unconscious: Psychological interactions in public and private space: NOVEMBER 2004
Running annually at Tate Modern 1 is an exhibition series called Untitled, which aspires to push at the boundaries of contemporary art practice. The first year’s programme, The Public World of the Private Space, considers the human condition in public and private environments, and in particular, the representation of space. The current exhibition is by the Malian photographer, Mohamed Camara, and deals with domestic subjects from his hometown in Mali – including dark interior shots with atmospheric silhouettes of people, partially illuminated by blinding sunshine.
Interaction within atmospheric conditions in private space, also occurred within Tate Modern recently, as part of the highly evocative installation by Olafur Eliasson called The Weather Project (part of the Unilever Series 2 within the Turbine Hall that had previously featured Anish Kapoor’s wonderfully organic and architectural Marsyas). The piece took on the cavernous space, through the installation of a huge half-disc, cloaked in artificial mist and sunlight that, reflected whole by the fully mirrored ceiling, became a mystical sun. What became most notable at the end of the showing however, was not just the work, but also the public’s collective and un-choreographed desire to continually interact with it. Mass public installations became the norm as impromptu groups lay on the floor to create skydiving patterns or to ‘mirror-write’ words or text on the ceiling above. Individuals sat or lay for hours to reflect on themselves and their part in a greater whole – in both a literal and metaphysical sense.
Eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung often wrote of our collective response to such base stimuli. He felt that there was a tendency of the collective unconscious to shape the present from a time when humans were only just emerging from their animal past. He believed it presented itself in the form of collections of images, including simple, geometric figures and emotions (particularly at crucial situations, such as birth and death) as well as more complex forms including real or mythical animals, and figures. In short, he felt we could be prompted to respond involuntarily in a pre determined manner – providing someone or something pressed the right buttons in the correct circumstances.
The veteran US artist Bruce Nauman, also likes to mine the rich veins of human emotions and psychological states, through his own performance-based work. He has recently become the fifth artist commissioned for the Unilever Series, and his sound-sculpture Raw Materials (sampled from an entire back catalogue of his past work) is now installed throughout the Turbine Hall on 36 flush speakers - referencing the buildings past, through a ghostly background hum, resonant of long-dead turbines. The work explores ambiguous repetitions and rhythms of common everyday language, to question the meaning we derive from it and the interactive responses (if any) we might add to it. "Work! Work! Work! Work!" one speaker bawls, whilst simple mantras like "thank you", “No” and “OK” are repeated until they become unbearable, like Chinese water torture. Gradually, as you progress through the space, more complex phrases are revealed, culminating in what the museum calls the "ironically hopeful" World Peace, where actors endlessly rehearse: "We'll talk, they'll listen/You'll talk, we'll listen."
The innovation in Nauman’s work (which dates back to the 1960’s) was recently acknowledged, when he became the 2004 laureate for sculpture in the Praemium Imperiale, 3 a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Art Association - by its own admission, “the mark of the highest international distinction for achievements in the arts”. Six international nomination committees proposed candidates in five fields of the arts, and with Nauman currently sitting alongside his fellow laureate for Architecture, Oscar Niemeyer, his huge international standing is clear. Of course, the visiting public’s reaction to Raw Materials has been largely one of collective incomprehension and disappointment - particularly given the huge visual appeal of the populist Weather Project and Marsyas. What they haven’t realised yet, is that they have once again become unwitting pawns in a huge artistic game – one in which they are as much a part of the ‘art’ as the installations themselves. Influenced during his earlier career by Samuel Beckett’s stark minimalist work exploring the human condition, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory on words being used as tools or games-pieces (with set rules of engagement and pre determined functions) Nauman believes strongly that his art has a clear social purpose, which is applies through attempting to trigger subconscious responses. “I am interested in making work that feels like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat” Nauman once stated.
Meanwhile, in the depths of the Turbine Hall, distant voices repeatedly call out "You may not want to be here," and "Get me out of my mind, get me out of this room," whilst, above the bridge in the middle of the space, an ominous cry asks us to "Think! Think! Think! Think!.” So it is, in our modern three-minute culture of usually having nothing left to the imagination, that here we discover nothing is left to physically fill the architectural vacume of this great chamber, but ones imagination.
Full Frontal – Taboo and censorship issues as art goes pubic in Liverpool: OCTOBER 2004
The city of Florence staged a 500th birthday party this September for it’s most famous son – Michelangelo’s huge nude statue of David – and unsurprisingly, though 110,000 people trouped past it, there were no demonstrations over public decency or calls for a strategic fig leaf. Sorry that this should be the second time in a year that I have referred to this ancient work (the first being my February article exploring figurative sculpture), but it seems strangely apt given the media-led debate of “Is it Art?” now raging in Liverpool, following Yoko Ono’s installations of her My Mummy was Beautiful series. Her work features a naked maternal breast and crotch displayed city-wide on giant banners, shopping bags and badges – all part of the International 04 strand of Liverpool Biennial. 1
Though no Michelangelo, Ono - widow of Liverpool’s favourite son John Lennon - is still nevertheless one of the world’s most original performance and installation artists, and viewed by many as one of the founders of conceptual art. 2 Her homage to motherhood and Liverpool is a variation on past works. She states: “This work was initially about my mother. But when I decided to do it in Liverpool, suddenly I remembered how John loved his mother, and it choked me up…. I think it will look very beautiful spread over this highly energised, beautiful city.”
In line with many others in a BBC-NW poll, 3 the work is described as "offensive" by Julia Baird, Lennon's half-sister, who complains the work is disrespectful to her dead mother – killed in a car accident when Lennon was 18. She is urging festival organisers to remove the work, particularly the one on St Luke's Church. However, the trustees of the war-damaged church (and soon to be new Peace Centre), wanted to mark this transition by specifically displaying Ono’s art – she being one of the world’s most prominent peace activists after all. Liverpool Biennial chief executive, Lewis Biggs, confirms that though they have no wish to offend anybody, the works will remain in place until the end of the festival. He believes that the pieces have been well received by a great many people: “provoking thoughts of their relationships with their own mothers."
It seems ironic that a display of such tame nudity (with only an oblique sexual reference) in public art can cause such a sensation, whereas the gratuitous obscenity seen daily in the public domain by way of advertising, media and internet is often overlooked. Indeed, why is it that other public displays of asexual nudity – such as seen in Spencer Tunick’s 4 current photography at the Hales Gallery 5 (capturing hundreds of volunteer nudes in temporary mass installations), and in professional streaker, Mark Robert’s populist exhibitionism 6 (streaking 380 times worldwide, including the 2004 Superbowl and Embassy World Snooker Finals) - be tolerated as a humorous and essentially harmless eccentricity? One supposes the key issue is whether sexual exploitation or degradation is sensed and serious numbers of formal complaints are lodged: as demonstrated in the infamous Sophie Dahl / Opium perfume advertisement withdrawn by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2000 because it was deemed “degrading to women and offensive”.
With regards the Ono debate, one wonders if there is actually an unconscious local agenda of unforgiveness at play here – for example, if the work had been created by any other artist, would such a furore ever have developed? In her complimentary installation within Tate Liverpool 7, Ono has installed an interactive panel for visitors to pen their own eulogies to their mother, and one entry stands out ominously: “my mother didn’t break up the Beatles - you did!”
If a scaled up David, along with explicit genitalia, can stand in the Palazzo della Signoria for 375 years, followed by 125 years in the Accademia Museum without causing offence, then what does this say of our continued British reserve and hypocrisy – particularly in a city moving towards its own 800th anniversary in 2007 and becoming European Capital of Culture a year later? 8 David was intended to symbolise the city’s liberty, and ”As David defended his people, Michelangelo said, so those who govern Florence must justly defend her.” Similarly, one hopes that someone remains at hand in Liverpool to defend the liberty of artists to express themselves publicly within reason but without censor.
The Art of Structure: Iconic Engineering at the Limit: SEPTEMBER 2004
The beautiful Menai Suspension Bridge completed in 1826 was the world’s first iron suspension bridge, having a span of over 500 feet. Its creator Thomas Telford had earlier stated he believed that engineering was “the art of directing the great source of power in nature for the use and convenience of man”. His philosophy reinforced the common professional ambition of the time - pushing beyond technological boundaries - whilst also seemingly alluding to references of a more altruistic nature. The physical form and juxtaposition of the Menai Bridge appear to consider it’s engineering as an organic structure and composition, and remains to this day a sublime example of iconic public art - realised unconsciously on an ambitious scale.
Now, as then, the gap between success and failure in such innovative undertakings is slender. The consequences of the latter today though, are often more dire and long-lasting in terms of hype rather than through catastrophe – as evidenced in the furore surrounding the famous ‘wobble’ on the London Millennium (Blade of Light) Bridge by Foster & Partners and Arups. Despite these potential setbacks, a bold ambition to create ever innovative and more beautiful public engineering still continues regardless. Recent award winning projects like the Gateshead Millennium (Winking Eye) Bridge by Wilkinson Eyre and the British Airways London Eye by Marks Barfield have set the new benchmark for heightened engineering-as-architecture. On a lesser physical and capital scale at least, the field of pure public art has also begun to flex these same structural muscles, particularly following the huge artistic profile and popular success of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North.
The self-styled Sport City in East Manchester is hopefully also about to enter the same public art arena when it finally gets to unveil the long awaited B of the Bang1 created by in-vogue designer Thomas Heatherwick2 (and featured in Penny Lewis’s interview in the July edition). The huge work-in-progress was publicly raised on the 5th August from a temporary platform to its final position on the approach to the new City of Manchester Stadium, and was even featuring on BBC’s Newsnight, such is the level of interest
Standing at 56 metres, B of the Bang will eventually (though no doubt only temporarily) become Britain’s tallest and most expensive public sculpture when finally completed in the Autumn: weighing in at 165 tonnes and costing a reported £1.4 million. The starburst sculpture is tilted at an angle of 30 degrees – reportedly ten times greater than the angle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As everyone probably knows by now (such has been the media coverage), the work symbolises the burst of speed and energy of an athlete launching out of the blocks, with the title inspired by Linford Christie, who started his gold medal winning Olympic 100 metres race “on the B of the Bang”. The work was commissioned to mark the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the continued renaissance of New East Manchester.
It is reported that Thomas Heatherwick sees the piece as more of a work of ‘design’ than ‘public art’. He does however appear to acknowledge an art at least in the innovation and realisation of its pure engineering pedigree. He alludes to as much in mentioning a humble inspiration taken from past engineering feats, such as when seeing the famous image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in front of the massive anchor chains at the launch of the SS Great Eastern (a ship conceived twice the length and five times the weight of any previous one).
Whilst B of the Bang in comparison attempts more modest technical challenges it still has the aspiration to push its own conceptual design to the ultimate. With a lack of any cross bracing, the entire structure is designed to freely move in the wind, and this factor alone should keep creative and corporate pulses racing until the autumn at least. When the £1.2 million Mersey Wave by artist-architect practice Art2Architecture3 was installed in Speke Garston late last year, it remained only a few weeks before having to be removed due to undulating movements in all the fins (reportedly causing irreversible structural deformation to the steel tips and a source of distraction to passing motorists). The work remains down many months later and is apparently not due for reinstallation, after modification, for some months yet. To be fair, the fault has yet to be legally or publicly determined, but it demonstrates at least the huge risks involved in endeavors to produce any major iconic work.
Time is of course the greatest leveler in the fate of any innovation. That Telford’s Menai Bridge some 178 years after completion can carry twenty-first century vehicles without major modification and still look the part says it all. In contrast, Brunel’s Great Eastern, was plagued by comparatively bad luck and lasted a mere 32 years before being broken up on Merseyside. How long Angel of the North will be around is anyone’s guess but one suspects, given its current artistic prowess and cult following, it ought to stand as guardian to Tyneside for many centuries to come. Whether B of the Bang can achieve the same hallowed status or have the potential to last as long remains to be seen. This will rely on both the quality of the art used in the works design and production, and whether it will simply ever become loved enough for people to want to keep it and look at it for ever.
Touching the Void: Commemorations on Civilian Loss in Armed Conflict: AUGUST 2004
One could be forgiven for assuming that Manchester City Council’s announcement of an ambition to build a commemorative sculpture for the bombing of the city was linked to the 1996 IRA bomb. In fact, the project (part of the City’s Valuing Older People initiative 1) relates to a planned memorial for Piccadilly Gardens, in honour of “civilian victims of enemy action” during WWII, and coinciding with the 60th anniversary of VE Day in May 2005. The project aspires to reconciliation and will hopefully also recognise that the two ‘Blitz’ days of December 1940, and in those on cities like Liverpool and Coventry, were only the same as Allied air forces later emulated (only more comprehensively and with far less humanity) in places like Dresden and Chemnitz (Manchester’s twin-town) following D-Day.
Interestingly, as part of International 04 in the Liverpool Biennial 2 this September, US artist Paolo Canevari is proposing suspending a replica of a World War II bomb over
Brunswick Street in Liverpool. Temporarily frozen in the action of falling, the work is described as a historical reference, whilst highlighting the new fear of an invisible threat (whether chemical weapon or suicide bomber). In titling both this and a related New York photographic work, Seed, Canevari alludes to the regeneration which follows in the wake of major destruction. Like the strap-line to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film Dr Strangelove - How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, it is a morbid love-hate fascination.
The 1996 IRA bomb, was once controversially described by Will Alsop as being the ultimate public art installation for Manchester - a flippant but truthful view only possible because, fortunately on that day at least, no deaths or casualties resulted. This could not be said of the IRA bomb of 1993 in Warrington that killed the boys Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball. However, even here was a tragedy that as a result of a families commitment, and fired on by a public and political desire for commemoration, has undoubtedly helped regenerate the town: also creating a flourishing Youth Trust and Warrington-based Peace Centre 3; as well as be the focus for the traditional River of Life commemorative sculpture by the studio of artist Stephen Broadbent 4.
The creation of memorials to civilian deaths are always controversial affairs, but when true artistic values can be explored and issues pushed to their extreme, often a dimension emerges that whilst engaging the suffering and memory graphically, also serves to commemorate and close it positively. For example, Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica (currently to be seen in the exhibition War & Peace at Barcelona’s Universal Forum of Cultures 5), was created to represent the horror in the German bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, and is still considered by many to be the finest example of such unbridled artistic intervention.
When talking about Rachel Whiteread’s sublime Nameless Library 6, built after much local opposition in Vienna’s Judenplatz, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal warned those gathered at the 2000 unveiling that "This monument shouldn't be beautiful - It must hurt”. Whiteread’s bleak work certainly did that - being a hermetically sealed room of books symbolising the famous public book burning, the large numbers of holocaust victims and the untold stories of their lives.
Thus it is with artist Jochen Gerz 7, who in creating his works Future Monument for Coventry in 2003, and Monument against Fascism for Hamburg in 1993, continues to explore a need for both change and closure on past wrongs: Future Monument deals with taboo and asked the people of Coventry to remember and record enemies of the past through a conducted poll and then celebrate relationships with people for the future, through physical inscription onto a glass obelisk; Monument against Fascism was a project that invited Hamburg citizens to engrave their names in opposition to Fascism, in the lead coating of a 12m stela. As soon as the reachable part of the stela was filled it was lowered, and over the following 7 years it gradually slid below ground in its entirety – where it remains today as a ‘non-monument’.
If a sixty-year gap still leads such commemorations into taboo areas, imagine the sensitivities needed at the 9-11 site in New York today 8. Not only was the competition and final choice of Studio Libeskind’s Freedom Tower a difficult process, but the selection of the sculptural works to be placed within the Ground Zero void has only just been recently announced this year after much heated deliberation: Reflecting Absence by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, is described as comprising two large voids (like the “voided voids” of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin perhaps 9) and acting as cascading pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Whether either project ever manages to cope with the immense issues at stake remains to be seen, though one suspects only the neutralising effect of significant time passing and a victory over a hidden enemy will allow a complete closure.
Of course, as one enemy subsides, another always seems to rise in prominence, like the alternating enemy of Orwell’s 1984. Now Fascism and the Soviet Nuclear threat have been replaced by al-Qa’ida, what is next? One hopes that artistic intervention in war memorials will not be needed again, but sadly like war and terrorism, it will always be around. What must not be forgotten is the sense that in war, civilian ‘collateral damage’ made against an enemy can sometimes be seen in time, as an atrocity against a new political ally. Though wounds do heal and life moves on to forgive, surely art has one of the most important roles to play in this painful but necessary moral investigation and memorial.