So last Wednesday four artists arrived at The New Art Gallery Walsall, armed with a set of instructions, and a sense of anticipation. First to make contact was Agent Kemp, who was quick to change into her agent uniform, and seemed a keen recruit. Then came Agent Griffiths, who, it turned out, had made an undercover reconnaissance mission to the gallery the day before to scope out the scene.Next was Agent Beavis-Harrison. And finally came Agent Armstrong. It transpires that Agent Beavis-Harrison and Agent Armstrong actually came as a pair, and have previously gone undercover as EXIT HERE, and so would be working together during the day. The agents received their briefing, which entailed exploring popular for creative consultation, information about the gallery and the process of designing and building it. A fair amount of detail was given in to the audience development activity, and consultation that happened between 1995 and 2000, during the design and build process, as this was relevant background information for the agents, and showed the commitment that the gallery has in terms of connecting with local people, and could also (I believe) be seen as a model of best practice, in terms of the development of cultural buildings with public money. Some examples of artists using consultation within their practice were given, and then the Agents were taken on a tour of the gallery and surrounding area. The artists were then given an hour and a bit to plan their response. An interesting synchronicity appeared to be going on, with Agents Kemp and Griffiths deciding to work together – having identified that they had similar ideas about how to respond, and had actually brought similar materials with them to work with. Agent Griffiths had brought some long strings of net with her in white and pink, and Agent Kemp had brought long pieces of elastic bungee in yellow, white and blue. After planning what they intended to investigate, and how they might record their findings, the Agents went out into the square to get started.The first thing they did was to set up a space on a nearby wall to record the public reaction to the intervention they planned to make on the square. The recording area would consider the public reaction to their intervention, in terms of whether the public would interact with the intervention, simply comment on it, or ignore it. They had previously discussed (within the interrogation room) the importance of collating the data, and the fact that it was necessary for one person to ‘interact’ with the public while the other recorded. They discussed the need for these two roles to be covered, but were aware that one of the roles was less interesting for the artist than the other.This would explain why any commitment to this process yielding scientifically verifiable data seems to have quickly been discarded – as both artists chose to be active participants in terms of ‘engaging the public’ rather than one having to record the results of the engagement. This is entirely understandable, given the short time allotted to the active part of the mission. Their main question involved engaging the public in debate over the use and purpose of Gallery Square. They decided to engage the public in activity within the square as a distraction technique, to get them to be more open and creative in their thinking about what they would like to see the square used for. Starting with very accessible questions, like do you come here often, and moving onto what do you usually do here, and then further to what could be done here, and what would you like to see happen here. They began creating personal creative spaces with members of the public – in the form of individual circles drawn around the participants feet. The participant was then encouraged to say what they might like to use their personal creative space for. The artists found that this question was quite difficult for people to respond to immediately, being quite conceptual, and quickly adapted their questioning methods, to encourage the participants to think about the sort of activities they enjoy, or would like to do. This activity was just a bit of a warm up, but received very positive responses from the people engaged. Then Agent Griffiths and Kemp threaded the bungee chord between the enormous stadium style lamp posts, effectively creating a barrier across the square, in response to the way that the public walks directly across the edge of the square, avoiding the gallery. This started as just a simple line, which people would either avoid or limbo under, or there was a way of walking close to the wall – which meant you could safely get under the rope. The artists set out to record responses on the wall.Then over time more bungee chords were added and the activity in the square became more complex. Soon groups started to interact with the artists, to make a giant cat’s cradle in the square. The artists worked with the groups to create variously shaped spaces in the middle of the square, and then engaged the participants in conversation over what the space in the middle could/should be used for. It seemed to me like a very successful participatory method, creating a literal, physical creative space which was used as a consultation tool. As well as this the public square was brought alive, and the public were ‘moved’ to negotiate the space differently, due to the activity going on. Later the agents decided to test out some individual ideas for working within the space. Agent Kemp occupied the seating area on one side of the main square, using the bungee to cordon off the benches creating an interesting sculptural effect. She found that the passive approach, patiently waiting for members of the public to come and interact was not as effective as the earlier activist approach. Agent Griffiths created a large sign asking ‘What is this area for’?’ and hung it in the middle of the square. She then used this as a prop for getting people talking. The wind unfortunately had a negative effect on this, buffeting the sign about in an alarming way, which seemed to keep the public away. The consultation technique employed by Agent Beavis-Harrison and Agent Anderson complemented the cat’s cradle activity, and in fact may have benefited from the ‘cordoning off’ effect of the bungee rope. These agents went to the local hardware store and armed themselves with white gaffa tape, as well as white boards and broom handles, which they turned into signs.They decided to mark out an alternate route in the square, which would aim to reroute the public’s usual journey across the edge of the square, bringing the public closer to the gallery than before. They then proceeded to march up and down the line they had created carrying signs which said art first ‘Walk The New Route Today’ which seemed to work quite well, but Agent Beavis-Harrison had written ‘Take A Walk’ on her sign which some people seemed to find a source of antagonism – responding with ‘I’ll walk where I want to thanks!’ The two experimented with semantics further trying out ‘STOP’ which did physically stop a few passersby and then ‘WALK A NEW WAY.’ They offered to accompany members of the public along the new route they had created, and while en route would ask them questions about the square, and its uses.As well as this they carried out a poll to see how many people in a 15 minute timescale would walk the usual route through the square, and how many would walk the new route, as proposed by them. They found that 80% walked the usual route and 20% walked the new route. Over the day as well as this interesting piece of quantitative gathered data, both groups were gathering qualitative data, in the form of comments made by the public. Here are a selection of some of them: ABOUT THE SQUARE: ‘Why don’t you move the building forward?’ ‘Do something with the wind – with colours!’ ‘Make it a welcoming area’ ‘Get a plinth – like trafalgar square’ ‘Get a statue – like the bull in the bullring’ ‘This is the gateway to Walsall‘ ‘I’d like an outside gym’ ‘I’d like a moustache shop’ ‘Id like floor art – outside the gallery’ ‘I never use the benches’ ‘They have performances inside – why not outside?’ About the artist’s interventions: ‘Why don’t you walk around like normal people?’ ‘I love my own circle here – being in my own space.’ ‘I’ll walk where I want!’ ‘You’re invading my space!’ ‘It’s mind-boggling’ ‘Brendan and Chantelle skipped with the elastic’ ‘I’ve never really though of walking a new way!’
The INTERЯOGATION: ACTION RESEARCH Mission is now complete, and I can therefore reveal the identities of the 5 Action Research Agents. They are in reverse alphabetical order:
The agents arrived at the New Art gallery Walsall at 10:00 hours on 09/09/09.
On arrival they had to meet their contact and deliver a top secret code phrase, which cannot be revealed here, for security reasons. Below, Agent Semp making contact.
Below Agent Vaughan making contact.
Below Agent Cooper-Willis making contact.
Below: Interrogation Room.
They were then given directions to the Interrogation Room, where their info packs and uniforms were waiting for them. Various formalities were carried out, as the transformation from Artist to Agent was carried out, and then the serious business of the Mission was introduced.
I cannot go into too much detail, as it would compromise security for the other missions, but suffice it to say the Agents took to their new roles like hippos to mud (CLUE)
The Agents were then led on a whistle stop tour of the gallery and immediate environment.
We had a fast look at Neal Rock’s show, and Gordon Cheung’s, and a very quick look at the Garman Ryan collection, we whizzed by.The artists had a good look at the target area, and explored the canal basin area.
They explored the front and the back of the gallery.Looked at the stripey floor, and the new chequered floor.And the bit where Urban Splash have bought a bit of land. They climbed on the hillocks.And they lounged on the concrete chez lounge, for a photo.Then they went inside for lunch and to plan. Before emerging an hour later, full of sandwiches and fantastic ideas. Agent Cooper-Willis and Agent Semp had formed an alliance during the planning session, and so regrouped in Gallery Square to discuss tactics. Their approach to the action research project was to be fairly experimental and playful. Trying out various tactics to activate and interfere with the Gallery Square, findings ways to halt or change the movements of the public through the space. One of their tactics involved chalking various markings onto the floor. For example, the interrogation zone, where Agent Semp would encourage members of the public to stand in the zone, and then Agent Cooper-Willis would interrogate them on various points relevant to the square, and its uses.Another of their methods involved Agent Cooper-Willis responding to the public’s tendency to ‘hug’ the wall – taking a route through the square which kept them as far away from the gallery as possible, and as close to the old Woolworths building as possible. Agent Cooper-Willis carried out an experiment to see how far away from the wall she could stand, in order that the public would have to walk around her, and step out of the usual routes. She found that she could be 3 steps from the wall, before her physical force-field would be interrupted by brave souls, venturing between her body and the Wooloworths wall.Agent Semp also used a Pepsi Challenge style conceit as a way of engaging the public in conversation about the area, public art and the square. He would ask them first to guess which of three cups contained bottled water, tap water and canal water, and then would open the conversation out from that point.Agent Vaughan responded to a piece of work which he saw within the gallery where the Garman Ryan Collection is held. The curator of the Garman Ryan likes to slot in works by contemporary artists amongst the collection on display, creating interesting conversations between art works. One of these is in the landscape/cityscape room, where a photographic exploration by Richard Wentworth is displayed. This piece looks at the detritus of everyday life, and items discarded in public spaces, but treating them as though they are a traditional still life. Agent Vaughan was compelled by this idea to carry out a photographic investigation on the streets outside the gallery. He picked up on discarded objects, weeds and dog poo. His idea was to document the objects, and then replace the actual object with the photographic representation of itself. The object would then be brought into the gallery, and exhibited as part of the Interrogation documentation. Agent Vaughan was interested in exploring the question of exchange of value suggested by this activity.He then took the idea further, by photographing features that might otherwise have been overlooked, like drain covers, stains and patterns in brick work. This time placing the photographic representation over the original, and leaving it in place – creating just a slight jarring of everyday life.
Agent Koszerek became an urban gardener, and went to the waste ground at the back of the gallery to investigate the types of weeds that could be found there. She documented these using sun paper, and collected a good sample, which she then took to back to gallery square to find some participants.
She found two participants who were quite willing to help her to plant the weeds up into window boxes, returning to the waste site to collect more, and get some stones. They watered the weeds and made some further cameraless photograms with the sun paper.Then Agent Koszerek brought the window boxes inside, to a ledge overlooking the Garman Ryan Collection, which she had noted during the tour. The idea was to bring some flora and fauna into the space, due to the collections strong influences and themes of nature (there is a flora and fauna strand of the collection.)The resulting display worked very well with the wood work of the gallery.
Agent Bethell chose to respond to a particluar piece from the Garman Ryan collection. He was interested in the impact and importance of a collection of this kind on the town of Walsall, and the idea of allowing the collection to leak out onto the streets. The piece that he focused on was The Weary Ploughman, by Samuel Palmer. His first task was to try to get the materials he would need to build his plough. He found himself on a challenge Anneka style dash through the streets of Walsall, trying to find what he needed, without much joy. Luckily he came across some helpful policeman, who directed him to the nearest wood merchants. He was surprised by the friendliness of the merchants who gave him the wood for FREE! and also surprised by the reaction of some members of the public to his Uniform, he received funny looks, and was called ‘Hitler Lover’ by a group of youths – in response to his moustache, which he then removed.Once his plough was built he took it out to the sauare in order to plough the concrete. He used the markings left by artists Catherine Yass and Richard Wentworth (who designed the square) as guides. The idea here was to plough up the stark concrete in order to create fertile ground for creative future uses for the square.The performance lasted around 25 minutes, and received a good deal of interest from passersby, one group of youths telling Agent Bethell that ‘You can’t plough Concrete’ which of course would be true if you were using an ordinary plough, but this was an idea plough, and therefore capable of anything. Another passerby asked ‘Are you having a nice day?’
To which we all replied, YES!
We have taken up residence in the artist’s studio at the New Art Gallery Walsall today. It was exciting. We arrived at 9.30 – and hung around til 10 when we could get access. The security and gallery staff were really friendly and asked if we were waiting for someone. I told them we were with Longhouse and one man said ‘Oh are you going to be in disguise?’ and I said yes, and the other man said ‘Oh its the Interrogation Room.’ Which I was pleased about. Everyone at the gallery has been expecting us, and they were all so helpful, it was brilliant.
Agent Greenwood, Brown, Stoker and I spent the day setting up the Interrogation Room, and trying to test equipment. Quite a few technical hitches, some of which are unresolved, fingers crossed for Wednesday.
We had a bit of an explore about, and have fully taken ownership of the space. It was good to be in today and test the live stream in the studio, and figure out just what is going to happen on Wednesday.
Lots of work to do tomorrow to get everything ready, but seriously can’t wait for the artists to arrive and see how they respond.