HSS8121: Public Making

Installation of the playing instruments and lights in the Star and Shadow Cinema
“off button” installation of the instruments and lights in the Star and Shadow Cinema
Installation of two photographic prints on acetate , instructions to play
A member of the public listening to the light
Members of the public playing with the telescopes
Members of the public listening to the lights after the sun had set

Our group project was exhibited as part of The Late Shows at The Star and Shadow Cinema; an event which sees cultural and historical venues across Newcastle open their doors late to the public and is one of my favourite events every year. We made five simple paper mache electronic instruments powered by light, for people to interact with in the daylight and with artificial lights when the sun had gone down.

Inspiration / Making

Our initial ideas centred around hidden, shadowy spaces – the culvert and river running under the cinema and the shadows cast by the different layers of city architecture, the metro bridge, the valley below the cinema.
Our first proposal for a piece was to play a soundscape in one room that was generated by the shadows cast in another room, but we realised that all interaction would not only be passive, but completely un-readable from any part of the piece, the sounds could well have been prerecorded. In that realisation we moved our ideas forward and morphed them into the work as it is, touching on designs that included wall-mounted telescopes, cats eyes in doors and larger scale outdoor sculptures. We showed each other concept sketches and this was the main method of fine tuning our design idea. I put forward that of all our ideas, the telescope would be a way of making a piece that was realistic to build and transport in a short space of time and we began to construct our paper mache cones.

We agreed as a group that we wanted to keep the objects white on the outside and incorporate the circuits without hiding them away (the latter a more practical decision rather than an aesthetic one) but we decided to paint each one with a colour inside and contrasting colour on the rims. They have a strange resemblance to many things due to their shape and simplicity – telescopes, horns, megaphones, ear trumpets, bone flutes, etc, and I think it’s their strength that people can associate them with multiple things.

When testing out the objects that were initially made to be secured to a wall or table, we found that they were much more satisfying objects to handle than to look at so decided to make them into individual instruments playing their own solar powered tone and completely self contained. When playing around with different kinds of solar panels and different sized buzzers, we decided to use a mixture of buzzers and solar panels so each object would have a unique tone. We intended also to create one or two with a chirping sound, using a slightly more complicated circuit, however we couldn’t construct a working circuit in time so decided to keep to the drones.

We tackled the task of making sure people knew they could interact with our instruments by taking inspiration from Open Form and in particular artist Zofia Kulik. She would often photograph herself interacting with sculptural objects (often cones), and we thought this would make an interesting aesthetic statement to photograph ourselves using the cones as telescopes and megaphones as an invitation for the visitors to do the same. We took these images on the grassy area in front of the cinema, printed them onto A1 acetate and hung them in front of the window to let the light through and blend them into the surroundings, as though we were performing there ourselves.

Event and Response

The most exciting thing for me was seeing how the instruments changed throughout the night as the light faded and the crowd changed. Initially they were very loud, emitting a constant drone (apart from when placed panel-down) from the daylight. We had the artificial lights on too, but they didn’t have much impact at all. In fact, in the daytime they just served as more sculptural elements I think, highlighting the objects on the table but not serving much function in terms of sound. Children came and enjoyed playing with them, understanding immediately that they should pick them up and look through, listen through or shout through them. One problem was that because the circuits inside were very exposed, one child put his hand into one and pulled a component out of place, which we didn’t manage to fix. A couple of people remarked that it was nice to be able to see the circuits, but perhaps there is a design that would ensure that the circuits were more protected, and I think we’d work on that more if we did the project again or pushed the idea further. The choices of colours and paper mache / handmade aesthetic I think is one of the things that made them appealing to interact with – people wanted to pick them and were very playful with them. At night the atmosphere changed a lot – people were more willing to take the objects out of the space and use different light sources including another group’s projector to play them with. They became much quieter, intimate objects when the sun went down because they only made noises when held very close to the LED light sources.

People gave positive feedback, remarking that they were interesting and that it was a nice idea to be able to listen to the light. People played with them in surprising ways too, using them in combination with each other, muting them like a trumpet and even taking them over to another group’s work that featured a microphone to use them together which was exciting. There were a couple of points where I felt like people didn’t want to pick up the objects so I picked them up and demonstrated them, chatting about what they do and how they work. I spoke with lots of people who asked questions about them and it was really great to be able to be near the work for most of the night to talk about it with visitors.

In future I think I’d be really keen to develop this idea, perhaps by experimenting with shape and size and even filling a room full of them. It felt like a really good learning experience to work in our group, I’m really proud of what we achieved and pleased I got to push myself to collaborate with new people and make an interactive electronic artwork.

HSS8121: Public Making

One of the most memorable artworks for me that was touched upon in the lectures this semester was “Town Crier” by the Institute for Boundary Interactions (2011); a performance piece using a wearable device. It consists of four mounted megaphones on a backpack and is carried in public spaces, while any recent geotagged tweets to within 90 metres of the device are picked up by it and spoken aloud by a robotic voice through the loudspeakers.

This ‘shouting out’ action is humorous and silly; like a child shouting random stuff at the top of their voice for attention. Isn’t this what twitter is though? I myself use it and other social media, and am definitely one for shouting into the void (this blog post, even), and that is essentially what we’re doing; shouting our thoughts to the world in the hope of some kind of response. This isn’t a private action though – tweeting on a public account and geotagging it, however it’s something that is done in private and though we see a comment, retweet or like, we rarely watch the people reading it and I think that is the weird thing about this. If you heard your tweet shouted out like that, you’d see faces crinkle in response with whatever their immediate reaction is, for better or for worse. This artwork made me think really deeply about what I actually put online and how embarrassed or freaked out I’d feel if someone stood next to me shouted it to everyone around me.

There is a certain amount of anonymity that comes with voicing opinions online (unfortunately often leading to unpleasantness and violence against individuals or groups of people) and even if we aren’t spreading hate in the way that many seem to do, we take it for granted that we are in some way anonymous with our online words. Our fragile bodies are not present, we can turn off the computer and go far away from the words we speak. In the case of a tweet being shouted out in a public space this is no longer true however, the person’s words are being broadcast in a context they were not meant for, leaving the person feeling vulnerable in a way that is unlike being online.They are there in that moment, exposed; their inner-most thoughts that were deemed suitable for people across the globe without the immediate context of a 90 meters radius are now being shared with the person across the street. It throws an extra complication into the discourse between public and private; it is no longer as straight forward as ‘at home’ vs ‘in a city centre’.

With this piece being made in 2011, I can’t help but wondering what would be different if it was performed now? Would people be as shocked by the broadcast as they were then? How would the way technology has increased it’s grip on our reality and the changing uses of the internet shift our perception of this piece? My response is an example in itself, as this is being written in 2019 and my immediate focus is to do with vulnerability and safe spaces online which might not have been my go-to when the piece was first made. Twitter has had a particularly strange recent political history, with it becoming the current president of the USA’s main channel of late night communication and, quick as a flash, become in his eyes an enemy trying to censor him.

It seems that this kind of art which deals with these politicised online platforms and our equally politicised real-world public spaces can only ever soak up the context that surrounds it. After all, the robot voice is shouting recent tweets – it is a snapshot of the political and social landscape; taking on our thoughts and feelings and fears and exposing us to each other.

HSS8121: Public Making

The visiting artist lecture by Ed Carter was an interesting insight into his practice and posed many complex questions about the use of data visualisation as a way of exploring a concept, as well as the responsibility of the artist to the community that they are making their work about or for.

Carter gave several examples of works which make use of data visualisation – sound or imagery that responds directly to data from all kinds of sources, to give viewers a different perspective on something fairly ordinary, public architecture, for example. In his work “Barographic: The Lowry” (2016), he translated atmospheric pressure data from certain architectural spaces in the Lowry into a 3D animated graphic score, which created melodies and rhythms based on these readings, changing throughout the exhibition. The resulting piece is a meditative, aesthetically pleasing artwork, the formal qualities of the sound and blueprint-like architectural modelling of the space to visualise the graphic score are calm and offer an interesting alternative way of thinking about public spaces. It is a simple and effective concept and a good example of data visualisation as artwork, however the choice of data itself (atmospheric pressure in public spaces) is not something that I am especially moved by. I don’t feel like I understand the spaces better in any real world sense or how people exist in them, but it is an interesting proposal to make something beautiful out of very ordinary data.

Carter also discussed his works “The False Lights of Durham” (2013) and “False Lights Seaham” (2014), which are responses to the maritime history of East Durham, and accidents at sea that are to this day very close to the hearts of the communities along the coast. In contrast to the Barographic works, these use data that has an emotive context for many people. ‘False lights’ are unexplained lights along the coast that caused ships to wreck; controversially these were blamed on local fishing communities, who were accused of confusing ships to steal their cargo. For “The False Lights of Durham”, flashes of lights represented the dates of shipwrecks and lyrics were based on the fishing communities defence against the accusations of purposefully wrecking ships.

The piece “False Lights Seaham” specifically responds to the 1962 George Elmy lifeboat disaster, taking the form of a performance and site-specific sculptural installation. In a sense this work is a data visualisation, his website describing that “Structural elements of the piece are drawn from the rhythm of the lighthouse lamp, and from numeric patterns and key incidents mentioned in witness statements taken at the time.” It seems that many of the decisions taken in the development of this artwork are based on some kind of data, numerical or anecdotal; as a way of representing the event. However, it poses questions about the possibilities of translating such things, data about such a terrible event that resulted in the loss of human life, into an adequate representation on behalf of the people who died, their families and their community. Numerical data is such a cold thing to base an artwork around, but when those numbers represent something emotive, does that bring more emotion to the music (assuming the listener knows the context)? And what if the listener is unaware of the significance of these sounds and where they come from? How does that change the work?
Carter discussed the sensitivity with which he had to treat this artwork, and was careful to closely consult the local community, and perhaps as an artist who is from outside the town to come in and make a work so sensitive, perhaps the use of data was an appropriate method. After all, he would not be able to draw on his personal experience of the event or the feeling of growing up with that event so present in the local collective consciousness.

Carter’s method of data visualisation to represent and shed new light on public architectures and historical events is simple on the surface; however the context surrounding the data can complicate matters, especially when it involves working as an outsider to a community and responding to their history.

HSS8121: Public Making

The aesthetics of anti-capitalist art and advertising in public spaces

In the lecture by Gabi Arrigoni, among other things, we looked at digital public art, impermanence and the appropriation of advertising aesthetics and platforms as a public art practice which often critiques and challenges politics and elements of public life.

This relationship between art and advertising (and by extension, capitalism and big business) is a complex one; however I want to comment on the relationship between advertising/branding and art that means to challenge the status quo, and the struggle to say something meaningful and revolutionary while advertising attempts to repackage it and sell the aesthetic and ‘lifestyle’ back to consumers. Companies look out for the next product they can sell, even if its roots are in a movement against their very existence. The act of appropriating something against their existence may arguably lead them to financial gain, as they make money from the selling of anti-capitalist merchandise, of which there are countless examples (the first to come to mind is the current treatment of the artwork of Frida Kahlo).

The aesthetic common ground between successful advertising/branding and activist artwork makes it easy for each to use another (activist artists using advertising platforms to spread their message, advertisers taking their stylistic pointers) despite often having intentions that are worlds apart. Both often make use of slogans, bold images, colour and text and often take the form of ephemeral spectacles that capture attention and remain in the onlooker’s memory despite being gone in a flash. Both too make use of public spaces; physical spaces in towns and cities and more recently in the digital world.

What makes an artwork hard to appropriate?

A term coined in the 90s, ‘Tactical Media’ describes artwork of no specific material or medium, but binds together works that are ephemeral interventions with the intention of critique, activist artworks that rely on some kind of spectacle to engage and disrupt. Krzysztof Wodiczko, for example, used projections in public spaces in his works The Homeless Projection Civil War Memorial (1987) and Projection onto South Africa House (1985) to protest and highlight injustice and hypocrisy by the establishment, which were eventually removed by authorities. With this kind of work the spectacle is not just in the projection of an image onto a building but the removal of the work too, which proves the point that they are covering up the things Wodiczko is highlighting. Though it shares tactics with advertising in it’s use of physical public space, simple imagery and impermanence, I feel that this is a good example of an artwork that is more difficult to appropriate because the use of imagery (an image of a homeless person in the example of The Homeless Projection Civil War Memorial, and a swastika, in Projection onto South Africa House) is too difficult to sell, it is not possible to repackage to consumers because the point is not vague, it is specific and recognisable and makes use of distressing imagery. That is not to say that aesthetically it is a successful artwork, but it is, for sure, a poignant act of protest.
In contrast, Jenny Holzer projects slogan-like phrases (or ‘truisms’) to provoke onlookers e.g. “abuse of power comes as no surprise”. This is another example of an artist projecting into public space with an anti-establishment critique, however Holzer’s phrases have found their way onto t shirts, cushions and phone cases, while Wodiczko’s work remains an activist statement. We must first realise that Holzer’s work is not necessarily a protest in the same way as Wodiczko’s, and in addition to this there are two crucial differences that separate these artworks. Holzer’s projections feature short statements, catchy and often quite vague. Anti-establishment rhetoric and social commentary is mixed in with other phrases that are much more abstract or ambiguous “timidity is laughable” “to disagree presupposes moral integrity”. Her use of words is poetic and compelling, however their diluted nature and vagueness makes them blend into a sea of greetings card statements, easy to appropriate. The vague anti-establishment sentiments in the phrase “abuse of power comes as no surprise” is palatable for consumers and companies: it’s not really saying or doing anything in particular, but having it printed on a t-shirt implies that there is some rebellious nature in owning it; activism is being sold as a lifestyle and aesthetic. The design of the work too is minimal and bold text, short and punchy. It has much more in common with advertising and branding strategies than Wodiczko’s instantly recognisably political images, and as such it makes it easy to put onto any kind of product.

The appropriation of advertising platforms, strategies and aesthetics by artists for their public artwork or activism can be a tool to create successful and poignant artworks, however the use of these shared tactics is not without risk; companies look to profit from aesthetics that capture public attention.

HSS8121: Public Making

How do publics arise from problems?

If we are to understand that a ‘public’ is a community and collective identity that exists openly, how might these form in response to a problem, according to chapter 7 of Jane Bennet’s “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things?”

-Pay Attention and Respond Appropriately-

In the seminar text, Bennett relates Darwin’s observations of worms making collective improvisations to Dewey’s ‘ecosystem-like’ ideas of the public; that people form and maintain publics by way of a big collective impulse, implying that it is some kind of greater subconscious force.
She goes on to say that “Like the conjoint action of Darwin’s worms, the conjoint action of Dewey’s citizens is not under the control of any rational plan or deliberate intention.” yet she also claims that the worms “pay attention and respond appropriately.” Though it may be possible for worms to successfully pay attention to their surroundings and assess if there is a problem or threat and act without rational plan or deliberate intention, I think that any “appropriate response” from “paying attention” by humans would be in some way intentional. Not to say that humans are incapable of acting on impulse, but that people are always consciously collectivising and organising in responses to problems and in my experience this is the kind of collective action that makes changes in society.

With the framing of a public as an ecosystem that is “constantly creating multitudinous consequences”, “rippling and recombining” and “crossing the others” to create knock on effects it is hard to see how you could argue against Dewey’s image of an ebb and flow of public and problems, constantly effecting each other, however I think this is more about deliberate action than he gives it credit for. This leads me to empathise more with Latour’s perspective here, which she then goes on to discuss.
Latour places an emphasis on intention, and thus is more in line with my way of thinking. This isn’t a hard statement against going with the flow however, as it leaves space too for “surprising” yourself by the action and direction you take, in the way one might get carried away in a protest. Still, from Latour’s perspective, people aren’t just bumping around in the dark like worms; they are moved to take action.

Dewey says that the members of the public are inducted rather than volunteering for it, but I think within those publics that we are “induced” into, there are actions that are deliberate challenges to the status quo and responses to problems that form new publics, therefore we must have agency to decide when we want to form new publics and change the existing ones. As Bennett states “..While every public may very well be an ecosystem, not every ecosystem is democratic.”

Another theorist, Ranciere, is introduced; on the surface apparently less concerned with how publics emerge than Dewey and Latour. If we are to take it that publics are constantly being formed and reformed in a messy, interconnected way, then his idea centres around the idea that political actors or “demos” reveal something of a society. However, one could argue that their ability to change radically what people see could trigger the emergence of a public, meaning that when a group of people collectively shift their understanding of the world, they break away into a new social space of shared beliefs. He also brings to the fore the idea of nonhuman participants in a public, as animals and objects can be catalysts for change even if it is not their intention. They are, however, a part of the swirling mass that gives intentional acts of defiance a context, though he does not go as far as suggesting that they are political in themselves. A picture is painted of a secret bubbling radical energy in society which pushes towards change, in a similar way to this idea of everyone collectively “paying attention” as Dewey would have it.

The framing of publics in this way by Bennett, Dewey, Latour and Ranciere leaves me to determine that publics arise from problems through a natural momentum that sees people shifting and regrouping. This then forms a swirling mass cultural context within which radical acts, decisive action and intentional formation of committees and alliances can sit, as we both unconsciously and consciously strive to form more functional, sustainable and fairer publics.