Arc: Unit 1
This 'narrative arc' describes the journey I've been on since enrolment. From where I am now, the sections below describe how I got here in exploring my research question: “Can object-centred participatory art create insights into complex social, environmental, and political issues?”
The impact of burning coal for energy is one of the key contributors to climate change. But as with many complex issues it can be hard to get to grips with. So my proposal is a very large installation which visitors can walk through. The work would be created by volunteers, ideally outside a conference on climate change. The lumps of coal are arranged as a map of the world. Each of 119 countries for which data is available has a thermometer planted in it. Each will show the country's annual coal consumption.
As visitors walk around the continents they'll be able to see and read the data on the thermometers. They'll also smell the coal and I'm hoping this will add to the experience. If people wish to take a lump of coal as a reminder, then that would be allowed and even encouraged. As with Gonzalez-Torres' 'Candy', the coal could be replenished during the exhibition.
Translucent acetates of the logos of the global top 10 social media platforms are applied to the surface of hand mirrors. The mirrors are suspended by chains from a hook in the ceiling and spread into a circle by a 90cm ring. One mirror is left blank and hangs at the centre.
The mirrors are suspended at a height which makes it easy for participants to take a hand mirror and see themselves in it.
Their reflections are mediated by the 'filter' of social media platforms. I'm trying to make it as rewarding as possible for people to participate in my work. So I'm hoping 'selfie appeal' will succeed in engaging people physically as well as mentally. Perhaps it will trigger discussion about the pervasive nature of social media and its effects on us.
'Sandpaper Family' was created for the 'Sparks' show at Legge Street Studios (see Cases). I chose sandpaper as my material because it would suit the nature of the exhibition site which was a workshop. The idea of a family was inspired by one of the goals of the Sparks project which was to engage the community and especially young families.
Thus 'Sandpaper Family' brings together my on-going explorations of the process of attrition, and object-centred participation. This sculpture, made of 3M Hookit sandpaper, was life-sized and hung from the ceiling rafters close to workshop machinery. This meant visitors could touch the rough and smooth sides of the figures.
I had intended to make a large-scale replica of the children's toy, but I realised the health and safety issues associated with people climbing in and out. I searched online for alternative designs and found one more like a slice of melon. Though this had a different aesthetic, its graphic simplicity and ease of construction was appealing. I was encouraged by Ashleigh Pearson to make a wooden maquette before embarking on the full-sized 8ft version. Luc Grant was really helpful in the making of the seesaw maquette and the full-sized version.
On reflection I felt I should persist as I needed to really test my research question and see whether participation improved communication. Before proceeding, I took further advice during a walk-in tutorial. Ian said if I felt strongly I should make the see saw, but that I should beware devoting too much time to a single work as it might preclude other experimentation. Being confident in my carpentry skills I decided to go ahead.
Reactions were mixed when I explained my intention to build a full-sized version which two people could sit on. Some group crit members felt it wouldn't add anything to the viewer's appreciation of the idea, because they could imagine what it would be like. As my research question is all about the added impact of participation, this gave me pause for thought.
At my first group crit the reaction to the 'Gender Seesaw' was good. Most people 'got' the idea and given the multinational nature of our group this confirmed the rainbow as a near-universal symbol for LGBT+.
Several also understood the idea of a gender spectrum. However some were a bit unsure of the meaning of the graphic signs in the poster. This confirmed to me of the relatively low level of knowledge of body chemistry.
LGBT+ issues continue to be discussed widely and yet there still seems to be quite widespread misunderstanding which often spills over into intolerance and occasionally abuse. My belief is that we are all on a 'chemical sex spectrum' which has a significant if not determining impact on our gender. In a sense there's no such thing as 'normal', just a wide range of possibilities. One day while thinking about the symbols of LGBT+ I realised that the rainbow becomes a seesaw when inverted. This can represent the spectrum of sex and gender we're all on. And because it's a familiar phenomenon, adding new meaning to it is thought-provoking. Even better, a seesaw invites participation and the action itself symbolises the idea of fluidity.
The 'Ballot Box', which I exhibited in the 'Quick and Dirty' student-led show end-of-term show, only elicited eight votes. Given that at least forty people must have passed by, I was disappointed by this result. A possible explanation was that young people are generally less likely to be registered voters, and to use their vote even if they are. However I had assumed that a real ballot box, with voting slips, and pencil would provoke the desired Pavlovian response. Clearly I was wrong.
Thus the goal of this art work to heighten the knotty philosophical problems and practical issues surrounding Referenda was not achieved.
What remains unanswered (despite asking the question of the MFA Facebook Group) is whether just seeing the 'Ballot Box' with its wording was enough?
To continue to explore this question I've posted the image on social media. It's not gone 'viral'...Indeed it's only been 'liked' by a couple of people of the thousands who have had the opportunity. I have to admit defeat and accept this work isn't as engaging as I thought.
The UK has been in the grip of Brexit since the Referendum in 2016. Arriving at Wimbledon in October 2018 presented me with the opportunity to address this vexed issue (see Cases). Thinking about the news coverage it occurred to me that at the core of the problem lay the meaning of the word 'Referendum'. So I determined to produce an artwork designed to get people to behave as if they were voting again, and in the process consider the process and meaning of what they were doing. The ballot box is a potent symbol of democracy and familiar to everyone. So I decided to change its meaning by subverting the notion of a Referendum, which hitherto has stood for making a once-and-for-all decision.
'Pacific Garbage Patch'
The word 'plastic' was stencilled over stylised waves and an abrasive pad was provided alongside. While this work was about 'attrition' and used sandpaper, what was new was the element of participation.
Title labels weren't allowed, but even without the exhortation to "rub out plastic" some people did so. Most of the word 'plastic' was obliterated during the show which was encouraging.
In early October we were still feeling the powerful impact of Sir David Attenborough's attack on plastics in the BBC 'Blue Planet II' series. So it struck me as ironic that the canteen at Wimbledon was still providing plastic containers to put healthy option salads into. I took one of each type, filled them with fish shapes cut from a variety of single use plastics, and hung them on the wall.
In the 3rd week of term all 1st year MFA were required to exhibit a piece of work (see Cases). Given the amount of time taken up by introductions to various aspects of the course and workshop inductions, there was little time to make anything. However it was a clever strategy because it pushed everyone through the 'artist's block' which could have taken hold. I decided to take this opportunity to start building a bridge from 'don't touch' to 'please touch' art works.
Understanding the context
An first important step in the process was to 'map' a number of the key artists involved in creating interactive, or participative art.
The graphic shows just a few of the many who could have been included, but it helped me focus my efforts.
I've been concentrating on the top-right quartile where the art work has a specified action and the action is related to the core idea it's expressing.
I had decided to start my MFA by exploring William James 'As If' proposition: "If you desire a character, behave as if you've already got it." I intended to discover whether the impact of an art work could be enhanced if a person interacted with it. I had been alerted to the traditional Wimbledon MFA Student and Staff Showcase by a graduating student I'd met going round the Degree Show in June. So I had had plenty of time to prepare for it.
I decided upon 'Sandpaper Bed' to make a public declaration of my intent, as much to myself as anyone. It was my most recent work completed in September for a pop-up showing at Chichester Cathedral, and was to be exhibited at Camden Arts during the second week of term.
The work was commission by Elder, a tech start-up in the healthcare sector as part of their campaign to re-define, and then end, 'bed blocking'. I bought an old King's Fund hospital bed, and to make the sheets and pillow cases I used 'Hookit' sandpaper donated by 3M. Studio space was provided by Sofas & Stuff in Fittleworth, West Sussex.
I've used sandpaper as my primary medium since 2005. However this was the first time when I hoped that people would touch it as part of their experience of the work. Happily this did happen and people's reactions seemed enhanced. Certainly visitors videoed at Chichester were able to express their feelings about the multiple discomforts of bed blocking rather well.
In terms of current work which inspired me, I cited Anne Bothmer, a recent graduate, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and Yoko Ono as my inspirations. All three of them use participation in their work.