How did a tiger end up in my garden? Reflections by Pier Projects on THRIVE | REVIVE, a programme of art in the public realm
What exactly does an out-of-place tiger have to do with curating a programme of contemporary art? Certainly on the face of it very little, especially given the location of the curatorial activity was the Suffolk coast and not a more natural home of a large species of cat. This feline reference belongs to art historian Hilde Hein and presents the paradigm of curating in the public realm. Hein writes, "the sheer presence of art out-of-doors …does not automatically make that art public, no more than placing a tiger in a barnyard would make it a domestic animal". Her reminder is an important one: the relationship between artistic content and audience is of far greater significance than that of artwork and accessible location in the creation of a 'public' artwork.
It was roughly eight years ago that I first came across this curatorial warning. I was researching and working alongside artists on public art projects in the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, strangely enough a country tigers do inhabit. Hein's words recently gained renewed prescience in the context of Felixstowe, a coastal town in Suffolk, where I was embarking on a new contemporary art programme. The following words which loosely taking the form of a case study, reflect upon this experience of curating in the public realm as Pier Projects, a curatorial partnership formed by myself and arts educator Louise Stratford on the Suffolk Coast. The process of writing this seeks to help us understand our formative practice and share some of the learnings we are currently assimilating.
Pier Projects started as a curatorial collaborative and now, some eighteen months later, operates more formally as a not-for-profit arts organisation. This newly inaugurated structure can feel far removed - at odds even- with the meandering conversations that catalysed its formation. Discussions between Louise and I began by sharing our interests and frustrations across a gym, the frequency of which was accelerated by a joint commitment to an endurance event that loomed large. Passing anecdotes about the mental and physical motivations lurking beneath this undertaking made us reflect upon how and why we had internalized a dualistic approach to our minds and bodies. It was immediately clear that this separation was counterintuitive to how we felt and was a wholly uncomfortable distinction.
Conversations quickly turned to our respective jobs within the arts and overlapping concerns emerged. We aired frustrations about reductive systems and metrics used to both define value and measure impact of art projects in our roles of curator and teacher within publicly funded institutions. A shared confusion about the privileging intellectual and theoretical responses to contemporary art at the expense of emotional or physical ones grew. We sensed reticence in acknowledging affective and somatic impulses within aesthetic experience and asked ourselves why. As we looked around at the wider arts ecology and the momentum with which art and wellbeing programmes were gaining, the importance of these questions was amplified.
A different response seemed necessary to us.Our starting point was the belief that the impact of participating in the arts on positive mental health and wellbeing is just one lens from which connections between art and health should be explored. As our interests gained definition, we recognised 'health' as the all-compassing condition that underpins the uniqueness of being human: the physical, mental and emotive and all the blood and guts in between. We wanted to let artists drive new questions and answers about art and health through new work that was equally focussed on their experiences and those their work connected with.
The focus of these discussions shifted from concepts and potential content to context. Securing our own fixed space or building as a primary base to develop and deliver arts projects never surfaced. Collaborating with existing initiatives through a model of borrowed infrastructure was muted but felt like an unnatural, slightly presumptuous route. After four years curating an exhibition focused programme, I wanted return to supporting artists to make work that beyond gallery walls and test different strategies for fusing artists with audiences. Our interests, instinct and research all pointed to curating in the public realm.
Implicit challenges lay in this curatorial route. Neither Louise nor I were residents of Felixstowe and this made assessing potential scope and audiences for an art programme of this nature more speculative. As such, it made sense to probe the existing links or networks in the town. Louise’s involvement in the Open Water Swimming Community and links as a beach hut owner were important nodes for accessing and building local knowledge. Discussions with local stakeholders included artists, businesses and local authorities; research into existing arts provision and its infrastructure enabled us to better understand need, interests and gaps. This period shaped our thinking and built confidence that there was a new, complementary space for our work.
The first conclusion Louise and I reached was to root a programme in projects, largely commissions, that would occur in the public realm during a Summer programme. These projects would develop through a non-continuous residency model that would begin to embed artists in the locality, initiate a place-sensitive work and probe audience engagement. Our ambition was to work with artists over more than one season, instigating a durational approach and deepen empathic insight between artwork, people and place. Timing and accessibility of the programme was speculative but driven by common-sense: by programming across the Summer months when Felixstowe was busier and outdoor activity more prolific, we would increase our chances of engaging residents, holidaymakers and day-trippers; by ensuring all events would be without a charge and located in public spaces, we would limit institutional and financial barriers to people experiencing them.
These guiding principles were put into practice through a pilot event in September 2017 with artist printmaker Adam Bridgland when we commissioned him to produce a new screen print inspired by the impact of the sea on our health. The work was screen printed live from a sea-front beach hut in Felixstowe where Adam became a temporary artist-in-residence. We programmed the event during Art on the Prom, an annual event that sees artists line the promenade selling their work and draws high numbers of visitors to town.
The positive feedback we received about the public and participatory nature of this event gave us the confidence to further pursue our ideas. Our first, seasonal program of artist-led activity funded by Arts Council England followed this Summer and began to loosely unpackconnections between contemporary art, health and public space. Titled 'THRIVE | REVIVE', the project was framed to acknowledge historic associations of British coastal towns like Felixstowe as places for contemplation and relaxation and comprised public art interventions, events and performances in the public realm alongside an engagement programme with young people, enabled by a partnership with local charity Level Two. We worked with Caroline Wright and for a second time with Adam Bridgland through a flexible residency model to test a cyclical way of working. One took the form of a development residency that would focus on a specific artist idea or form of audience engagement and was undertaken by Caroline Wright; the second, undertaken by Adam Bridgland, extended a live dialogue and working relationship to produce a more ambitious work in the public realm.
Adam Bridgland's residency expanded his screen-print 'Upon Every Wave' and developed into two public art interventions. The first of these, 'Out to Sea'- a vinyl image with text - was located in the shop-front window of 40 Hamilton Road. Out to Sea referenced the sea as a place of sanctuary and solace: a knowing nod to the open-water swimming community and its significance within the town. This work had not been part of our initial plans with Adam. After a protracted process in securing a site for his main intervention, we started thinking more flexibly about the form the work may take and its location. The town's high-street revealed a saddening array of 'To Let' signs along its disused shops units, which seemed ripe for activation. We were fortunate to find a landlord who was open to working with us and the process of securing one for a temporary intervention was encouraging in its speed and ease: Whilst unintentional, Out to Sea was incredibly formative and a key point of learning in THRIVE REVIVE; it complicated notions of private and public space, highlightedthe regeneration argument for business or local authorities to work with artists andtestified to theneed to remain flexible and open to opportunity in the delivery of work in the public realm.
The second intervention by Adam Bridgland was presented as a wooden sign-like structure in which the words 'Upon Every Wave Our Wellbeing Rides' were cut out to reveal the horizon and seascape. Situated in front of Old Felixstowe’s Martello Tower - away from the Town Centre and main beach-front - it seemed to grow out of the landscape, with the North Sea as a backdrop. The work imbued the motion of the sea with a poetic and philosophical quality, familiar to those who walk along the coast, taking in its rhythms and soundscape. Several bold decisions were made about the work's presentation. Lacking a polished finish or installation, the work's DIY aesthetic riffed on harbour notices alerting us to ferry times, ice-cream prices and the ‘catch of the day’: direct messages from coastal workers who jostle for our attention. Similarly, the work was not accompanied by a title, artist's name or any interpretation. By removing these typical art frames - tools that serve to reinforce an artwork's message- we chose to let the work communicate to those who encountered it on its own terms. In this static and unmediated work context was, arguably, half of the work.
During her residency, Caroline Wright explored new modes of engagement with her on-going project 'Breath Control'. 'Breathing Hut' sought to develop a more intimate stage and closer relationship to audiences and add new philosophical and political dimensions within the context of Felixstowe. Caroline Wright took up temporary residency in a beach hut and across a week worked collaboratively with soprano Laura Wright and the local community to investigate perceptions of air quality 'by the sea'. From conversations to shared experiences, the artists worked towards short and intimate performances for small audiences. Participants were invited to share their stories of breathing and the impact of sea air, experience an immersive performance and contribute to a growing installation of breath in the beach hut.
'Breathing Hut' could be defined as being relational, dialogical, participatory and collaborative. Utterly process driven, the work operated on multiple registers and levels of participation. Seeking to avoid the audience versus performer separation, it problematised it through complicit engagement. Participants were a mixture of those aware of Caroline's work and had made the journey to Felixstowe and this who had been encouraged by myself and Louise. For the latter, being part of the work demanded a leap of faith and brave spirit: enclosed in a beach hut with no prior knowledge of what would take place other than the sound of voices in song it emitted. The impact of the performances on the participants and the emotional responses it elicited were quite unexpected. A letter sent to the two days after participating in the performance described how he and his wife could never have "foreseen the surreal effect (the work)… had on us. I honestly thought taking part would, in some small way, help you… but, since Saturday, we feel like we have been living in a dream ".
Between 'Upon Every Wave' and 'Breathing Hut', the programme played with public art as both a material entity and dematerial concept. In spite of the artists' varied content and approaches to working in the public realm, similarities emerged. The works imbued a slowness and intimacy, manifested in the pace of Caroline Wright's performance and Adam Bridgland's poetic proposition. Equally, the artists were highly vulnerable to their shifting context; weather, environmental conditions such as tides and the passing audience. The main point of difference was the degree to which they required direct engagement and participation between artist and viewer but crucially, they shared an invitation of co-investigation with their creator.
The work over the last eighteen months has formed a firm grounding for Pier Projects. We feel comfortable with the type of conversations an art programme we develop wishes to start and what it aims to contribute to artists and audiences in Felixstowe and beyond. The public art interventions, performance and workshops brought to the fore vectored and discursive notions of public(s), place and participation: our understanding of which requires longitudinal, accumulative reflection. At the moment however, as we look forward to future programming, commissioning of temporary work is likely to front and centre. This approach is not born out of a lack of commitment to artists or site but a respect for a town and its community: our position is one of offering an invitation to experience artworks rather than designate artworks as belonging 'here' or 'there'. Such considerations of art being in the right or wrong place return us to Hilde Hein's warning and the associated potency of art in the public realm. We must proceed fully conscious of what Miwon Kwon calls art's great myth: that art is 'good' and 'everyone wants it'.
I am concluding this the day before Prime Minister Theresa May was meant to take her Brexit deal to the House of Commons for a vote. Amidst this confusion and uncertainty about our place as a nation, let alone our communities, there is perhaps no more significant moment in recent history than this to open up conversations about place, participation and publics. Art can be disregarded as a minor, nominal concern in political climates like this but for those who read the relative importance of culture in this way, I suggest taking a moment with the impassioned letter Caroline Wright received.